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March 26, 2012, 10:10 a.m.

Mohamed Nanabhay on Al Jazeera’s online growth and the future of news distribution

The outgoing head of online for Al Jazeera English says media must continue to adapt to an audience that is driving and delivering news.

Mohamed Nanabhay likes to talk about something he calls “distributed distribution,” which, aside from being delightfully alliterative, might be a kind of rallying cry for the future of media.

“What that meant was that we shouldn’t think of ourselves as having a single venue where our content should be viewed,” said Nanabhay, the head online for Al Jazeera English. “We shouldn’t force people to come to our website if they want to view our content — rather we should move onto the platforms where communities have already formed and there are already big audiences.”

That’s a strategy that has worked for Nanabhay and Al Jazeera English: the site’s videos on YouTube generate around 2.5 million views a month; they have almost 1 million Twitter followers and just as many likes on Facebook. Maybe more importantly, Al Jazeera has turned around and used those alternate channels to bolster their news gathering, particularly throughout the events of the Arab Spring.

Nanabhay is stepping down as the online chief for Al Jazeera English and is planning his next big venture. But it’s worth looking at his time at Al Jazeera because it’s likely the idea of “distributed distribution” will be one of his legacies as it played a role in transforming the website of the Middle Eastern broadcaster into a experimental online news operation in itself.

“Previously, you relied on your correspondents and your wires or other news organizations, and suddenly you’re relying on the Internet effectively”

“We’ve done some great work over the years, especially the last two years with our coverage of the Arab Spring, and we built the website up to a place where I’m quite proud of it and quite happy both with the journalism we do and the form that we do it in,” Nanabhay told me.

Nanabhay has been with Al Jazeera more than 7 years, starting as the head of new media, a kind of digital projects division that allowed Nanabhay and his team to experiment with many of the things that are common practice at Al Jazeera English today: using social media in reporting and distribution, cultivating video from citizens, exploring the use of mobile tools for news. One of the biggest accomplishments during his time was the decision to allow Al Jazeera footage to be licensed under Creative Commons. As he prepares to leave two months from now Al Jazeera English is poised for more growth, establishing a foothold here in the U.S.: at least 40 percent of the traffic to Aljazeera.com comes from America.

“The English channel has been on the air for 6 years now, so we’re quite young, we’re quite nimble,” he said. “And in terms of international news, especially with our English channel now, we are a global player. But we have to fight to be recognized as such.”

Balancing what the audience expects with what’s useful

While Al Jazeera English is celebrated for its website and digital journalism today, in the beginning it was no different from other broadcasters who had to reconcile the need to produce broadcast-quality news and the demands of a website. “There’s always this tension between the broadcast side of the business and the online side of the business,” Nanabhay said. “People who produce television are extremely good at what they do and they are steeped in the medium and they feel that’s what’s important, that’s what people want. I think it’s a matter of balancing what the audience expects online and what’s going to be useful for them.”

Nanabhay said those early tests using YouTube, both to distribute video produced from the newsroom and to capture events recorded by citizens, showed the value of working differently. Similarly, the entire staff went through social media training — not to make everyone an expert, but to raise their awareness of the tools available and competing channels for information, he said. It may not be necessary for editors to be fluent in social media and aggregation, but it’s valuable for them to be aware of it as a source. As Nanabhay said “So when things kicked off, they knew there was this Twitter thing and they knew they needed to use it.”

Into the Arab Spring

And then Tunisia, Yemen, and Egypt happened. A sizable chunk of Al Jazeera’s coverage area in the Middle East was in upheaval. As the job of reporting in many of these countries became more difficult, either due to violence or state censorship, the reporting output switched to the web. Nanabhay said one thing that is overlooked when considering the role social media played in their coverage is the fact that Twitter and Facebook would not have been effective if Al Jazeera’s journalists weren’t familiar with the people, activists and other groups providing updates from the ground.

“What we saw in Egypt, and we see this with Occupy as well, is the ability of the Internet and people in general to be able to shape what’s newsworthy”

“The use of citizen media, both in terms of being able to find the information, verify the information and then produce it was obviously challenging, especially at the height of the Arab Spring when a lot of this material was based off citizen media,” Nanabhay said.

As ready as they may have been, it did require realigning Al Jazeera’s newsroom to focus attention on the flow of information online. Where tweeting and blog updates had once been a secondary concern, there were now dedicated staffers covering those jobs around the clock. “Previously, you relied on your correspondents and your wires or other news organizations, and suddenly you’re relying on the Internet effectively,” he said.

One thing Nanabhay is particularly proud of is the evolution of liveblogging on Aljazeera.com. The format made sense during the early days of the revolution in Egypt as well as the protests in Yemen, when news would come in through short bursts that would typically not be big enough to carry a full story. It wasn’t long before they saw a change in where eyeballs where going on the site. “After a couple of days of doing this we noticed that at certain points in the day our liveblog would have 10 times the amount of traffic on it than the lead story would have,” he said.

“What’s changed now is the context has moved from that particular video package into a stream of content”

As with most broadcasters, video remains a very big driver for Al Jazeera, and that was no different during the Arab Spring, where views of the network’s live feed jumped 2,500 percent during peak Egypt coverage. But Nanabhay said the attention to the liveblogs continued to increase as well, and they now have liveblogs with a constant stream of news for Bahrain, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Syria.

Changing news consumption

If there’s a reason liveblogs and live video do well, it’s because the audience now has an expectation of being to drill down into a topic, quickly. At the same time, the relative size of updates we receive on Twitter and Facebook are shorter than the average news story and have changed the atomic unit of news. How media organizations respond to that will determine their success online, Nanabhay said.

“We’ve historically produced a unit of content that contains the entire story, so it has all the context built in. We have the introduction, we have the meat, we have a conclusion and that’s a story or a video package. What’s changed now is the context has moved from that particular video package into a stream of content,” he said. “So each of those individual tweets and Facebook updates and YouTube videos themselves wouldn’t provide you with context. But if you look at a stream of data coming through you would see a bigger picture.”

One of the reasons Nanabhay is so bullish on liveblogs is because of the ability to thread all that information together to create cohesive stories. The value journalists can provide is as a curator of that information, but also delivering that news wherever readers are. That’s why alongside Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, Al Jazeera English also is active on Reddit. It’s also why they launched The Stream, a show deeply immersed in social media.

That’s “distributed distribution” in action, as a means for journalists to continue their work and build audiences. Al Jazeera English is a distributed network that reaches out to its audience wherever it is at any given moment. One of the reasons Nanabhay is so optimistic about a future where journalists and citizens collaborate in storytelling is because of the possibilities of technology. Thanks to smartphones, journalists and civilians alike are producing more media than ever before, which is something news outlets need to embrace and facilitate, Nanabhay said.

“What we saw in Egypt, and we see this with Occupy as well, is the ability of the Internet and people in general to be able to shape what’s newsworthy,” Nanabhay said. “I think that’s quite powerful. I think it’s not a matter of them taking journalists’ jobs — that’s just the way the Internet’s evolved and the way information now flows.”

Photo of Nanabhay from Joi Ito used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     March 26, 2012, 10:10 a.m.
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