What It's Like to Work for Al Jazeera America

KING-TV anchor Allen Schauffler left his desk behind to join a news bureau that makes people nervous
| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

It has been more than a year, but Allen Schauffler’s ninth-floor office overlooking South Lake Union still looks like he just moved in. There is almost nothing hanging from the stark white walls—nary a dent or ding, either. Taped on the glass window at the entrance is a white sheet of copier paper that states simply, “al jazeera america—seattle bureau.”

These are the greener pastures for which Schauffler—a 25-year broadcast news veteran, weekend anchor and seven-time correspondent at the plushest of assignments, the Olympic Games—left KING-TV. Now he’s buried on Comcast channel 125 between BabyFirst Americas and Nicktoons on an aspiring news network whose parent company is, rightly or wrongly, best known in America for disseminating the dictates of Osama bin Laden.

And Schauffler—who simmers with energy and has a professional-grade knack for speaking authoritatively on almost any subject—seems quite happy about it.

From his window, Schauffler can point out the Seattle studios of his old employer. “It was the best job in the world,” he says of KING-TV. “But it was the best job in the world for 21 years. I was ready for something different.”

Still, when his agent called about the opportunity at Al Jazeera, Schauffler said, “What? Are you crazy?”

Schauffler is one of only three full-time news gatherers at the Seattle bureau, including field producer Kristin Fraser and cameraperson Jose Cedeno. The nimble, almost-DIY ethic of the bureau seems to appeal to Schauffler. He loves barnstorming across the Pacific Northwest, all three in one car, reporting on whatever is timely or of interest. (Everything is your beat when you’re a three-person bureau.) “It takes me back, sometimes, to the days when I was a one-man-band reporter, camera on my shoulder, filing two or three stories a day. You kidding me? I loved that!”

Now, Schauffler and his team file roughly two or three stories a week for a national audience. Some of those stories will be breaking news of national import, such as the Oso mudslide or the Seattle City Council’s approval of a $15-per-hour minimum wage. But what really pleases Schauffler are the stories that allow him to be something of a Pacific Northwest booster. When he talks of his reporting on the nesting habits of the Caspian tern population at the mouth of the Columbia River, for example, or the cleanup of tsunami debris on a remote Alaskan island, Schauffler will frequently interject with glee: “People in Podunk, America, have never seen anything like this!”

Why, exactly, the Al Jazeera Media Network (based in Qatar and owned by the country’s ruling family) wants to capture the American audience in Podunk —spending a whopping $500 million, according to reports, to purchase Current TV—does raise the eyebrows of media observers, as well as the hackles of many conservative pundits. But the acquisition does appear to piece together a BBC-like jigsaw of global news affiliates, when included with London-based Al Jazeera English, Al Jazeera Arabic, Al Jazeera Balkans and Al Jazeera Turk. All told, there are more than 70 bureaus worldwide.

Al Jazeera America comprises 12 U.S. bureaus, with Seattle being one of three on the West Coast. Schauffler says the Seattle location is ideal because the city is a key technology hub, a vanguard in relevant political and social issues (marijuana legalization, $15/hour minimum wage), and a proving ground for many environmental issues.

According to Kate O’Brian, president of Al Jazeera America, based in New York City, that’s exactly why the network made a concerted effort to staff local bureaus with local talent. “We don’t want someone who’s just parachuting in,” O’Brian says. “We want someone who knows the region, someone who’s lived it.”

And does having known, trusted personalities like Schauffler also help mitigate the continued perception that Al Jazeera America is, as one panelist said at a Heritage Foundation–sponsored forum in June, “an organ of enemy propaganda”?

O’Brian says that wasn’t intentional. “But it is a nice result,” she adds.

Schauffler, for his part, acknowledges that Al Jazeera America does have some work to do in terms of branding. “There are times when the phone calls don’t come back, and you just can’t get through to the people you want to talk to,” he says. “You find out later it is because you are from Al Jazeera. Period.”

That said, Schauffler suggests that these perceptions are changing. He’s quick to reiterate the company line: “We are an American network for an American audience.”

If only America was watching. In general, Al Jazeera America has earned a strong reputation of providing in-depth news coverage that skews neither left nor right. Schauffler says he, as does the rest of the network, avoids stories that feature talking heads “yelling at each other.” Still, the network remains hamstrung by its obvious branding issues, cable-channel obscurity and the misconception that the network is merely an English-language version of Al Jazeera Arabic with content geared toward Arabic-speaking Americans. (It isn’t.)

Consequently, the network struggles to attract viewers—while available in about 52 million homes nationwide. Reports surfaced in May that Nielsen measurements had the network averaging about 14,000 viewers during prime time (8 to 11 p.m.). By comparison, Fox News (which once suggested Al Jazeera America was communicating with terrorist sleeper cells in Detroit) reached more than 1 million in that same time period.

As for Schauffler, he’ll let the others worry about ratings. He’ll worry about the news.

And in doing so, one gets the sense that Schauffler has found his mojo again. With a lean staff and a long leash, he’s got plenty of room to roam. That is where you’ll find him, happily on the road throughout the Pacific Northwest, telling the stories he believes are important to tell.

Decorating the office can come later.