How They Did It: Al Jazeera’s The Stream

By on November 28, 2011

Al Jazeera English was looking for a fresh take on global issues and culture, with a decidedly modern spin. After a year or so of incubation, the Doha-based network launched The Stream, a web-integrated show based completely around user-generated tips and feedback, across platforms like Twitter, Reddit, Facebook and Google+. Here’s an average day at office.

9:50 AM

This is the monster pitch session, where all staffers come in with news they are following. Demographics are fairly evenly split — seven women and seven men are in attendance this morning.

Topics proposed: Coca-Cola using gamification on Japanese vending machines; Kenyan University Strike; Jawbone’s motion sensor bracelet; African rural radio broadcasters get a social network called Barza.

Members of the team provide justification for selecting stories. In general, The Stream prefers stories that are relevant to an international audience, covered enough to be buzz-worthy but not necessarily in the mainstream media. Direct requests from viewers are highly ranked.

As the meeting breaks, black bean brownies and chocolate cookies are served.

10:35 AM

Melissa Giaimo mans the phones, juggling guest scheduling, car scheduling and random news updates. She monitors the usual three-screen set-up — most desks have a two-monitor console and a television set, in addition to any additional hardware (laptops, iPads) the staff chooses to use. Searching for guests, she consults a massive spreadsheet with names, experience areas and locations, as well as scouring Facebook and Twitter for smart commentary.

10:55 AM

Debate about the top of the segment with researchers: “We’re not saying all the issues with migration and money are with migrants, but we are saying all these things change.”

The complications with doing a political show often mean teasing out subtle differences. Michael Hopper, in debating the issue with Imran, notes: “It’s not state-sanctioned xenophobia, it’s state prompted.”

Imran voices concerns: will the guests agree with each other too much? A strong show requires a back and forth. He stresses discussion about historical sources of conflicts: “It’s classic colonialism 101 — these divisions have their roots in Soviet Policy.”

Puzzling through the problem, how do you document racism? “Is it crimes, the state?” Imran says he started working for Al Jazeera because “It was the new kid on the block … I was a young journalist looking to explore the world. There was a charm.” Many other media organizations had very rigid hierarchical structures and Al Jazeera’s more flexible structure appealed to him. “They were giving young unknown people a chance at that time. I was lucky as well. There are many people out there that are more than qualified.”

Working at Al Jazeera also broadened Imran’s horizons. “It was a great experience for me, educationally — it’s like walking into the United Nations without the bureaucracy. It works on general diversity, not just skin-deep diversity. When most people talk about diversity, there’s a monolithic worldview and a set company culture. Here, it was very different. You can never consider yourself settled in a particular view because there is always someone to challenge it.”

Asking Imran what he likes best about this job prompts a quick quip: “It’s definitely not the coffee machine.” Then, a bit more seriously, “I think it’s the grotesquely privileged position I’m in, where I get to do a television show where I am learning every day. TV is a dumbing down kind of thing. Even in the news, there’s a tabloid aspect to things — you cherry pick aspects of reality and dress it up in entertainment.”

11:30 AM

I asked how “The Stream” was formed. James decided to tell me the whole story:

“We’ve done traditional talk shows in the past, I was asked to think out of the box, and really think of more of a social media show — a show that’s on the web and just so happens to be on TV. People told me about TwiT (This Week in Technology), and the other one with the two guys drinking beer on the couch. I spent some time looking at those, and from there, I realized what could be good about it is the quickness of the response.

“Then we had the idea to use Skype, rather than the traditional satellite. So that was the concept I pitched to the folks in Doha over a year ago, and once we were given the green light, we got Stephen Phelps, who was experience in TV, to help launch the shop and develop the idea further. He came up with the Twitter wall. We had the idea for a couch, so it would be less formal. We wanted it to look less like a studio, but more like someone’s apartment. And we wanted to ensure it was authentically social media. Other TV shows tack on social media to the side of the show, and with this, we tried to do it the other way around.

“Skype helped to bring down the baseline costs. Where on a regular show, a satellite might be $1,000 to bring a guest in, but this doesn’t cost anything. But it was more of an editorial decision, we wanted it to look like the web. Our first episode, we were able to appear on Skype with the guy who live-tweeted the Osama Bin Laden raid. He (bin Laden) was killed on a Sunday, and we launched on that Monday.

“We felt like we were bringing new voices and fresh voices to Al Jazeera. And we know from Facebook, the majority of the fans are between 18-25, and we are successful in tapping into the younger audience.

“A lot of the issues (are) with live reliance on technology, but when the bandwidth isn’t great, adjusting to that. What we are doing is new and different — that was a leap of faith, because if it didn’t work we would have been in trouble.”

1:02 PM

Jennifer describes a frantic day: getting up early at six to hit the gym,, checking all the feeds — “Twitter and email and stuff” — staying abreast of what Al Jazeera is covering. (The Stream tries not to repeat content.) After a workout punctuated with email, Jennifer showers and heads into the office for the morning meeting. If she’s producing the show, she talks to the host to make sure everything is set, finished on the web, dotting the i’s, crossing the t’s, and “at some point I’ll ask someone to bring me lunch and eat at the desk.” Then there is the show, the post-show wrap up. And if she’s doing the next day’s show, then there’s host prep. Producing days wrap up at around 8, other days she usually leaves around 7.

The frenetic pace is second nature to Jennifer — she’s been with the network for six years. I ask what keeps her going. “The mission of the network is the voice of the voiceless. We really take to that heart here,” she replies. ” Maybe their story is hitting a wall in their own country, but it needs to be heard. A compelling story is a compelling story no matter where it is.”

Jennifer also notes the atmosphere at The Stream also keeps her and the other staffers engaged.

“We try to innovate all the time, even if it is a little something. In a year, it shouldn’t look the same. The orange couch will still be there, but it should be something different, something fresh. We’re always experimenting and moving forward. We are always looking for new ideas too.”

2:11 PM

Overheard: “OMG, why is Russia’s editorial process so sexy?”

2:25 PM

2:30 PM

3:17 PM

The pace has greatly relaxed. Producers and hosts go over what worked with what guests, what to do differently, possible restructuring of the set.

3:28 PM

Spontaneous game of cricket/baseball/bowling. A red ball is being tossed around, but the game morphs depending on the nationality of the pitcher.