Interview: Mohamed Nanabhay, Head Of New Media, Al Jazeera: Winning Over The Skeptics Online

imageIts English TV channel is still only carried by three local cable networks in the U.S. despite growing acceptance in other countries. But an ambitious online strategy, coupled with web innovations added during Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, is helping Al Jazeera win over new audiences in America and elsewhere.

Denied conventional TV carriage, the Arab-centric news network has instead opted for what new media head Mohamed Nanabhay calls “distributed distribution” — syndicating online via YouTube, Real,, the LiveStation and Zattoo apps and a host of other outlets. He says these online video efforts, plus blow-by-blow reports posted to Twitter, produced a “huge spike in traffic” during Israel’s month-long offensive in the Palestinian territory, when Al Jazeera was one of the few networks with cameras in the region.

“It’s been quite a busy month … our team is quite small … everybody worked flat out during the war,” said 29-year-old Nanabhay, speaking from the broadcaster’s Doha, Qatar, headquarters, where a seven-person online team focuses on web projects to spread Al Jazeera’s content as widely as possible. “Since the war started, the amount of live stream viewers has increased by over 500 percent.”

Along the way, Nanabhay says, this growing attention is convincing more people that Al Jazeera, despite the post-9/11 criticism it received for showing al Qaeda videos, is a credible news organization: “A lot of that was misperception from people who had never seen the channel, and was more political than anything else. Now we’ve been able to reach out to communities who may not have seen us previously. By and large, we’ve won over the skeptics“…

Web substituting TV: Online has been “one of our main outreach areas to the U.S.” says Nanabhay. YouTube, to which Al Jazeera pushes news clips and full-length shows in both English and Arabic, has been “extremely useful,” partly because it lets bloggers embed videos. Nanabhay’s YouTube channel saw 150 percent more traffic during the war, the majority from north America, he says: “It’s allowed us to reach people we may not otherwise have reached, especially youth.” Other distribution platforms include apps for iPhone and Facebook, a recently revamped mobile website and breaking news via instant message — all part of Nanabhay’s Al Jazeera Labs, a tech innovation playground of the kind that many modern news networks are now adding.

Gaza, Twitter and the Creative Commons: Earlier this month, Al Jazeera offered to give away its raw footage from the conflict via the relaxed copyright license. Nanabhay says the video was used by Italy’s RAI and Indonesian, Bosnian and other channels around the world after being downloaded from the website: “There’s been quite a bit of pickup, and that’ s just what we know about; we’ve seen a lot of people mash it up as well.”

Al Jazeera began using Twitter almost two years ago for breaking news alerts and, later, the U.S. election, but “the important breakthrough” was the use of a dedicated ajgaza feed during Israel’s recent assault: “We were providing breaking news through the feed. Journalists were writing messages and sending them out, which is very different from just taking an RSS feed and sending it out through Twitter. We peaked at around 5,000 followers. There was tremendous growth as the war went on.” Nanabhay said news had evolved beyond newspapers’ 24-hour cycle and even conventional online reporting: “Now people expect a blow-by-blow story.”

The rationale for online: “We’re funded by the emir of Qatar so we’re effectively a semi-state entity. It’s definitely given us some leeway to experiment online because we’re not under the same pressures to profit. Everyone would like to see a business model and some profit emerge but, at this point, we’re all about distribution and making sure whoever wants to see us can see us.

“Like every news organization, we went through this phase of trying to figure out what to do online. No-one really quite knows what the business model is going to be; everybody’s trying to work that out. We went through a period of evangelizing these services, starting with small projects to show the value. People on the broadcast side are quite excited as well. Our presenters are quite happy to be shown on new distribution platforms online. They are already seen by 40 to 50 million people on TV, but now they want to get it online as well; maybe they want to show their mother the clip!”

Views of the brand: He says the addition of the Al Jazeera English channel, and the growing overseas audience means more people are coming to view Al Jazeera as an international news network — just like CNN International, BBC World or France 24 – that just happens to be headquartered in the Arab world. But has Al Jazeera recovered from the Bush administration’s criticism in the early days of the “War On Terror”? We monitor what’s happening and it’s now surprising to see how many messages on Twitter say, ‘Hey, I thought Al Jazeera was like this, but I’ve been watching them on LiveStation or YouTube and it’s actually quite good.’ It’s definitely changing people’s opinion, slowly.”