Al Jazeera America hit with layoffs months after launch

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The logo of Al Jazeera.

The logo of Al Jazeera.

Dozens of employees and a large number of freelance journalists were laid off Friday by Al Jazeera America, the fledgling cable news operation that has struggled to make a footprint on the over-saturated television and digital information landscape.

In a memo distributed to employees on Friday, Al Jazeera America’s president of operations Kate O’Brian announced that while the channel had met its internal goals, some areas of the news organization would “expand or contract” going forward.

“Now it is time to set our sights on new goals, requiring different levels and areas of investment and resources,” O’Brian wrote. “We have reached what I will call our steady-state level of operations and we are bringing our staffing levels into alignment with our long-range plan as per our original business case.”

The memo didn’t say which parts of the company would be restructured, but the Los Angeles Times noted on Friday that the channel’s sports department had been eliminated and that resources dedicated to the social media-focused program “The Stream” had been severely scaled back.

Insiders told the L.A. Times that around 60 positions were eliminated. Several dozen freelancers and independent contractors were also let go as part of the channel’s restructuring of human capital.

Al Jazeera America has struggled to find an audience for its programming due in part to a lack of carriage when the channel signed on last August. The network took over a spot on cable and satellite systems once occupied by Current TV, a channel founded by former vice president Al Gore that Al Jazeera purchased last January.

But not all pay TV providers were on board with the new channel. Several, including Time Warner Cable and AT&T U-Verse, dropped Current shortly after the acquisition by claiming that Al Jazeera America would be a new channel not covered by the carriage agreement with Current.

Al Jazeera’s decision last summer to geographically block access to its English-language stream in the United States has also driven viewers away from the brand. Before, American internet users were able to watch Al Jazeera’s international channel for free on YouTube, Livestream and on Al Jazeera’s own website. But that changed when Al Jazeera America launched — now the only way to watch Al Jazeera is to subscribe to cable or satellite, or use a virtual private network to access Al Jazeera English.

The decision to block Al Jazeera English’s online stream in the United States was meant to drive interested viewers to the channel on cable, but so far that strategy has proven to be a flop. The New York Post reported in November that half of Current TV’s audience had ditched the channel since it became Al Jazeera America. On average, the channel drew around 13,000 viewers.

Things barely improved for Al Jazeera America when Time Warner Cable reversed itself three months ago and began carrying the network. Though the channel is now available in 55 million homes across the country, its averaging just 15,000 viewers daily according to Nielsen figures cited by the N.Y. Post.

Still, the channel is determined to carry on. “We are continuing to build a sustainable and high-performing news organization in the tradition of the Al Jazeera Media Network,” O’Brien wrote. “It all starts and ends with the journalism.”

Al Jazeera America says it has over 800 staff members working in a dozen bureaus across the country.