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A new era? Al Jazeera’s cautious embrace of citizen media

One of the themes of this year’s Al Jazeera Forum is “New Era”, an effort to make AlJ a “media” company and not just a television network. (The logo’s great, actually – the final three letters of “Al Jazeera” popping up from the staid logo in a fun font…) The leader of AlJ’s technical team explains that the focus is on making AlJ content available on five screens: television, computer, mobile, PSP and iPod. The reason for this is realization that young people are spending less time watching TV than accessing the Internet – he quotes statistics of Arab youth media consumption, which indicate users spending 30% of their media time online and 24% watching TV.

To demonstrate their commitment to providing content on different formats, a Jazeera geek presses a new Motorola phone on me so I can follow “breaking news” from the conference. The “news” includes skillfully produced interviews with the Jazeera presenters who are hosting panels the first day – the quality is very good, but it’s hard for me to imagine spending five minutes downloading thirty seconds of video unless it was something I really, really wanted to see.

We hear that AlJ is less interested in ARPU – average revenue per user, the standard telecoms measure of product success – than in AAPU, average attention per user. This is an interesting statement to unpack – implicit in it is the admission that AlJ, like most other media networks in the region – runs at a loss and is subsidized, in this case by the Emir of Qatar, so it can serve a social purpose. When revenue isn’t the only bottom line, it’s easier to be concerned about average attention…

Part of this social purpose is to use Al Jazeera as an amplifier “for the unheard voices”. This is the impetus behind “new socially driven content”, which suggests that the network is going to look for ways to include some aspects of citizen media or participatory content in the site. There are very few specifics, though. Al Jazeera Talk is a “network” of bloggers – they’re not hosted by AlJ and their content isn’t featured on the main AlJ site, but there’s an “affiliation”. As I talk with the geeks, I get the sense that there’s a big internal debate about whether it’s safe to embrace user-created content. “The executives say ‘What if someone defames the Prophet? What if someone says something bad about the emir?'” one friend tells me. AlJ’s not alone in this resistance – we had lots of conversations on this topic with Reuters before Global Voices content found its way onto the pages of their Africa site. But I get the sense that there’s some forces within the organization who are deeply skeptical about letting Jazeera’s “New Era” embrace user content as fully as I would hope.