Al Jazeera America Launches Next Week, With an Outpost in Nashville



My story in this week's Scene is on Al Jazeera America. The new American arm of the Qatari-based Al Jazeera launches next Tuesday, Aug 20, on the channel formerly known as Current TV. And they're giving it to us local!

One of AJAM's 12 bureau's around the country will be here in Nashville, led by former WSMV reporter and weekend anchor Jonathan Martin. And the network's nightly news broadcast — aptly named Nightly News — will be hosted by one John Seigenthaler, a veteran newsman with deep Nashville journalism ties, including his own stint at WSMV in the 80s.

Seigenthaler was the most recent of several big hires for AJAM's primetime lineup, including Soledad O'Brien, Joie Chen and Ali Velshi. But the network has also been making much of their bureaus, and the local talent they've hired to staff them, as an opportunity to cover stories other networks will miss.

An excerpt from this week's issue, after the jump:

Martin says he didn't have a negative perception of Al Jazeera before he flew to New York to meet with the higher-ups, but he did want to learn more about their vision for AJAM. He found out they wanted to build an American network for American viewers, he says, and "they wanted someone in Nashville to bring out news from Middle America, from regular everyday Nashvillians and Tennesseans."

"They wanted to be in places that the other networks are not," he explains. "For example, Nashville, New Orleans, Detroit — places that are respected cities, people know about them, there's stuff going on, but there's no one on the ground every day."

Based in an office on Church Street, Martin and his team will cover Tennessee, Kentucky, the Carolinas and Georgia. They'll also split coverage in Alabama with correspondents based in New Orleans. The Nashville bureau will likely be staffed by four to six people on a regular basis, including Martin, a producer, a photographer and several freelancers. (A freelance correspondent, for instance, recently covered a Trayvon Martin rally in Atlanta while Jonathan Martin was on assignment here.)

In a conference call yesterday with reporters, AJAM's CEO Ehab Al Shihabi, and president Kate O'Brian reiterated the idea that the network plans to lean on its various bureaus to differentiate itself on the current cable menu. In the current landscape, Shihabi said, major outlets tend to focus on the 10 percent (politicians, celebrities, etc.) and then goes to the 90 percent (the rest of us) to see what they think. He said AJAM will aim to flip that, devoting itself to elevating the voices of the 90 percent and asking the 10 percent to respond.

“We consider ourselves to be covering the area that’s not being covered," he said. "We cover the area that’s undercovered. We consider ourselves the voice of the voiceless. This is our mission from the beginning.”

O'Brian jumped in to add why people like Jonathan Martin will be pivotal to that mission.

“We’re working very hard to hire people to be in those bureaus who are from those areas, because what we’re really looking for is to tell the U.S. audience the stories from areas that have traditionally not been covered so well," she said. "And to do that the best way we can, hiring people who know those stories, who have lived those stories, who have maybe reported similar stories in earlier careers. It’s very important for us to have sort of homegrown coverage of different parts of the United States.”

If it sounds like your kind of news channel — can it be worse than this? — go here to find out where to find it on the dial.

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