Al Jazeera's new media team hopes the introduction of competition will foster more innovation.
A decade ago, it might not have been a source of conflict for the region's most popular news broadcaster to have its headquarters in a country with the GCC's last telecommunications monopoly. But as the worlds of media and telecoms converged, Al Jazeera found itself occasionally chafing against the restrictions of Qatar Telecom (QTEL). Although the telecoms company offers high-speed mobile networks, it blocks the kind of independent live mobile video streaming services that the broadcaster's new-media team regards as the future of both reporting and distributing news. "The market may be out there," said Moeed Ahmad, the head of new media, referring to the broadcaster's international reach. "But we are here, so we have to test locally." At times that meant going over to the border of Saudi Arabia he said, "because it's not as closed over there". Now, however, change is in the airwaves as Vodafone prepares to launch in Qatar next month, having teamed up with the Qatar Foundation to buy the country's second mobile-phone network licence. Al Jazeera's new media team - a department of online, social networking and mobile media specialists who have won international attention recently for their innovative use of tools such as YouTube and Twitter in covering the Gaza crisis - are hoping the introduction of competition by the British telecoms company will create a more fertile environment for innovation. "We are talking to Vodafone and we are trying to have them use all their portals," Mr Ahmad said. "They have a lot of wonderful products that they use in other countries - we are hoping they are going to have the same expertise and drive and initiative here. "Currently, we are limited because the environment isn't conducive to the latest technologies. QTEL, even though they are putting a lot of effort in, are a bit late to the new media technologies and trends." He noted that although Al Jazeera has worked with QTEL on some cutting-edge projects - such as the high-speed, high-quality mobile broadcasts surrounding the Asian Games - and offered its channels through the mobile TV portal that QTEL launched last week, it was unable to test its plan to have viewers video weblog the US presidential inauguration because Qik, the mobile utility it planned to use for live video streaming, was blocked in Qatar. QTEL has a policy to protect the public from illegal, pornographic and socially harmful material. "The number of new internet services and applications launched every day with new content is very significant and we are doing our utmost to balance our responsibilities, bearing in mind there is no technological solution that achieves this job perfectly," said Adel al Mutawa, the executive director of group communications at QTEL. Using these latest trends to broaden and engage the audience of Al Jazeera's Arabic and English news channels and websites is the mandate of the broadcaster's new media department, which was established in 2006 under the leadership of Mohamed Nanabhay. Although websites were once considered the purview of new media departments in media companies, Al Jazeera's team did not see it that way. "Even the website, when we came in, we considered as a traditional way of distributing content," said Mr Ahmad. "New media is everything non-traditional." Perhaps not surprisingly, everyone in the department is under 30. (Mr Nanabhay, who just crossed that threshold, recently was promoted to a position outside the department.) The department tends to see news as more of a conversation than a speech, and pushes the larger organisation to make its content free as much as possible. One of its first projects was to upload full-length Al Jazeera Arabic-language programmes to YouTube - itself an innovation back when other broadcasters such as the BBC put only promos on the free video service - and then record a YouTube appeal by the show's presenter for viewers to send in their thoughts. They received 150 videos on the first try, and aired some of the responses during the next broadcasts of the show. The department's work in Gaza was the first big success for the English-language channel, which relies on new media efforts such as YouTube and Twitter to reach the US market, where it does not have cable television distribution. Within a week of creating the Al Jazeera English Gaza page on Twitter, the microblogging social networking service, the site had half a million hits, most of them from North America. But making money from this popularity, at least directly, has so far proved elusive. Even Twitter has found it difficult to charge for its service, and was forced to stop its SMS service in the Middle East and other regions last year because the fees that the telecoms companies charged for sending text messages were just too high. Al Jazeera does have its own SMS news alert service with about 80,000 subscribers, which it runs on a revenue-sharing agreement with more than 50 operators worldwide. Its new media team ultimately sees a far different model for making money from the increasingly mobile internet in the future. "I think mobile advertising is the way to go," said Safdar Mustafa, the head of the mobile media unit of the new media group. "I believe, moving forward, you shouldn't charge for news. It's not good. The news should always be free." To that end, Al Jazeera rolled out a new Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) last month, which makes its website easily navigable on any hand-held device. The goal is to follow that up with a second phase that incorporates advertising, ideally of the targeted variety. "You are totally cutting out the telecom company in this kind of model," Mr Mustafa said, but added that it was still "early days" for the service and it was yet to be seen whether it could be a viable revenue stream. Phil Lawrie, the director of global distribution for Al Jazeera, agreed. "Sometimes, subscription-based models are necessary to claw back some sort of return on a new service, product, platform, but as audience grows one sees ad-generating opportunities increase also," he said. "Critical mass - that magical tipping point when ad revenue generation becomes viable - is often hard to find in the mobile environment and it's therefore important for all stakeholders to be patient and establish business models that can survive a slow start and build gradually. We will undoubtedly see more free, ad-supported content going forward, it's just that the economic realities slow-up such a rollout." Al Jazeera's deep pockets make it an ideal place for this kind of experimentation, and Mr Ahmad is fond of saying that, in the new media realm, "it has never been this cheap to fail". But he also believes the financial crisis creates an opportunity for advancing these models of creating and distributing news. As news organisations' travel budgets shrink, he points out, citizen journalism becomes not just a neat idea, but an economic necessity. To that end, the department's latest experiment threatens to kick down the door between journalists and bystanders almost completely, at least as far as the technology is concerned. They are equipping journalists with advanced mobile phones capable of taking broadcast-quality video, and training them to be ready to use them anytime, anywhere - even in places where there is no high-speed broadband mobile network. Last summer, when one of the Al Jazeera cameramen participating in the pilot programme left his camera in his hotel room in Chad, went out to run an errand and found himself face-to-face with a bomb attack, he was able to film the aftermath with his mobile, upload it on the hotel's wireless internet and have it on the Al Jazeera airwaves almost immediately. Such successes obviously have major implications for the world of citizen journalism, but only if the telecoms companies were open enough to allow it, Mr Mustafa said. He notes that there is a way to bypass QTEL's block on the independent live video streaming sites, but it is complicated and time-consuming. "If you say to a group of citizen journalists, be the eyes of Al Jazeera, and the first thing that happens is QTEL blocks them, even if there's a way around it, it's not good for anybody," he said. "But there is a push for more openness for operators." email@example.com