Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty Imasges

The way news should be done

Though it too shall pass, Al Jazeera America was a model of the journalism the country desperately needs

February 26, 2016 2:00AM ET

Great journalism doesn’t always draw a big audience. That’s what happened here at Al Jazeera America (AJAM), where superb reporting, bolstered by a first-rate opinion section, found a following, just not one big enough to interest major advertisers.

AJAM’s online operation shuts down today, and the TV channel will go dark in April — their journalistic achievements ended by commercial failure, while Al Jazeera’s Arabic and English channels will continue.

Before this website is frozen, I want to point to some of the great work done here, examine the state of journalism in America and explain how this relates to the future of one of the world’s oldest democracies and its place as the world leader in promoting the human spirit.

The labor of good journalism

Readers should know upfront that for more than 40 years, I’ve written extensive press criticism in newspapers, journalism reviews and books. I’m the only American journalist whose reporting forced a broadcaster off the air, by exposing news blackouts and manipulations.

The quality of American journalism today is nothing like what was during the last third of the 20th century. Then news organizations earned big profits, and the best of them poured enormous amounts of money into finding, developing and sending into the field thousands of journalists. To be sure, it wasn’t perfection. There were flaws aplenty, especially regarding the lingering effects of America’s original sin of slavery and the institutional racism that persists long after the Civil War.

But reporters with the skill to do first-rate work could find newsrooms run by editors with strong backbones. Those editors (in broadcast, they are executive producers) had budgets to spend the time and money to dig deeply into major social issues.

Sadly, in this century the fastest disappearing white-collar job in the U.S. is journalist. Many newsrooms that once bustled with activity now have more empty desks than journalists. Editors — and owners — with backbone are an endangered species.

But that was never the case at AJAM. In 2013, when many top television and print journalists were looking for jobs, AJAM snatched up superb talents — including John Seigenthaler, Joie Chen, Antonio Mora, Randall Pinkston and Ali Velshi, the best in his class at explaining personal finance and economics.

AJAM ran innumerable documentaries and long-form news reports. In the field, producers and reporters, their names often unmentioned, looked carefully at what ails our nation and gave us the facts needed to inform us how to make America better. Penetrating and continuing coverage included stagnant wages and the lack of good jobs, the damage from pollution and decaying infrastructure and a criminal justice system that too often convicts the innocent while letting the perpetrators get away.

In addition, the AJAM news staff was much more diverse, on air and off, than the overwhelmingly white and male faces of American-owned network and cable news channels. That diversity of staff meant AJAM brought a wider and deeper vision of what constitutes news, both on air and online.

A lot of that work was recognized by other journalists. “Hard Earned,” a six-part series on the the struggles of working-class Americans won a DuPont Award, and exposes of how Americans get cheap clothes from Bangladesh sweatshops and the spread of cholera in Haiti after its 2010 earthquake were among the AJAM documentaries honored with Peabody Awards. The Center for Public Integrity teamed up with AJAM to investigate how the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision allowing unlimited dark money in politics would shape elections — a venture now cut short. My online column was judged the second best in America by my peers at the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.

My experience with AJAM has been the most positive of my career, better even than at The New York Times.

Rejecting access journalism

AJAM produced great journalism because it was never caught up in access journalism, in which what producers call the get matters more than the story. “The get” refers to securing a politician or other figure big in the news to appear on a show or sit for an interview. The problem with this approach is that to ensure future gets, the guests are typically asked softball questions and showered with flattery.

Journalists do not need access, but such connections are easier than digging through the official record in search of inconvenient facts. For what many consider the best magazine profile ever written, Gay Talese’s “Frank Sinatra has a cold,” the subject never spoke to the author.

In my home office, I have a television on in the background that rotates among the cable news channels all day. What struck me early on about AJAM’s launch was that the guests were often people not from the ideological marketing organizations that most journalists wrongly describe as think tanks but were instead serious experts. Many times they were people I had never heard of, but subsequent research soon revealed they were often in a better position to know about the issues of the day than the talking heads on CNN, MSNBC and Fox News. And they gave much more useful information.

So when AJAM’s online opinion editor, David Johnson, asked me to write a column in fall 2013, I was all in. Over the last 49 years I have had lots of excellent editors and more than a few awful ones, but Johnson, a former college philosophy professor, was the first with a doctorate. He polished my words, drawing on his keen sense of the immediacy of news and a deep understanding of humanity. And he never veered from making my arguments better, even when he disagreed.

Soon after this column began with a look at America’s persistent shortage of jobs in this century, I began cajoling friends and social acquaintances into watching Al Jazeera America’s television news and visit its news and opinion online.

The response surprised me. It was uniformly positive.

One rich and long-retired business owner where I live in Rochester, New York, stopped me at the local elite club to say he had watched several hours of AJAM and visited the website several times.

“That’s the way news should be presented — clear and rounded and smart,” he said, the guests at his table taken aback by the observations from this lifelong Republican.

Weeks later another acquaintance said she and her husband, a retired business owner, were vacationing when it rained all day so he turned on AJAM, watching in fascination well into the evening. “Why don’t we get news like that in America?” she said.

A promising venture ends

I heard only two consistent criticisms from friends. One was about the pace of AJAM television, which several people said seemed like “PBS NewsHour,” only slower. The other was more troubling: questions about trusting a news organization owned by Middle Easterners.

Despite AJAM’s promise, many Americans just could not get over the name Al Jazeera (the Peninsula). One person asked me, “How can you work for the terrorists attacking America?” unaware that the U.S. military’s Middle East headquarters is in Qatar, whose ruling family started Al Jazeera more than a decade ago to break through the state-controlled news in the Middle East.

But the name could have played to a sizable market in the U.S. I asked the Middle Eastern immigrants or Muslims I met whether they watched AJAM. Most said no, because they could not afford cable TV, but many said they watched Al Jazeera English or Arabic on the Internet. This potential audience was lost because of a business mistake: Paying Al Gore and his friend Joel Hyatt $500 million for Current TV and its cable system rights instead of streaming on the Internet for free.

It’s a shame that errors like this have ended what was otherwise such a promising venture. My experience with AJAM has been the most positive of my career, better even than at The New York Times. Now I am off to write a new column for USA Today and work on my next book, which will present a simple and effective federal tax system for the 21st century economy. But I will miss my AJAM years — something I cannot say for all of the other major news organizations that came to me asking me to write for them.

David Cay Johnston, an investigative reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize while at The New York Times, teaches business, tax and property law of the ancient world at the Syracuse University College of Law. He is the best-selling author of “Perfectly Legal,” “Free Lunch” and “The Fine Print” and the editor of the new anthology “Divided: The Perils of Our Growing Inequality.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter