Al Jazeera America Ends Sports Unit, Lays Off 60

Posted by at 1:53 pm on April 11, 2014

al-jazeera-america-logo1Al Jazeera America has disbanded its sports unit and laid off a few dozen freelancers who were brought on for the launch of the news channel last summer. Most of the departures were freelancers who were always intended to have a finite stay following the launch or after completing specific projects.

The dissolving of the sports unit involved full-time staff, and came as an acknowledgment that AJA has no traction with its general sports coverage. Other full-time jobs affected include some production staffers on “The Stream,” which has aired as a nightly 7:30 p.m. telecast that aims to engage with viewers via social media, but will soon be scaling back to once a week.

AJA has had an uphill climb in the ratings since it bowed last August on what had been Current TV. From the start, the channel has emphasized hard news and in-depth reporting, asserting that viewers are hungering for less sensational news coverage.

Led by ABC News alum Kate O’Brian, AJA built up operations quickly last fall and winter with the hiring of some 800 staffers and the opening of a dozen bureaus around the country, thanks to the deep pockets of a parent org backed by the state of Qatar.

Many news biz pundits have credited the channel with delivering solid journalism, but skepticism remains about its viability in the face of anemic ratings frequently fall below the 100,000-viewer mark. But the parent org has repeatedly stated that it is investing in AJA for the long haul — to build the key U.S. link in its global newsgathering network — and is not concerned with ratings or advertising revenue during the startup phase.

The layoffs initiated Friday would seem to run counter to that mandate, but sources emphasized that most of those let go were working on specific projects tied to establishing the basic infrastructure and never intended for long-term jobs. Sources also said the full-time staff remains at the 800-person level despite the pinkslips.

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