Past, now, future
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Al Jazeera English's move to implement its digital strategy at its bureaus across the world is an ongoing journey, one which managing director Al Anstey says the outlet is only at the "beginnings of".

But it has still been involved in examples of digital innovation in recent years, particularly its use of social media alongside its more traditional output, with its social television show The Stream and early experimentation with new platforms, key examples of an understanding of the power of social media.

And with a network of 80 bureaus, the next step is to establish a global awareness and driving forward of the outlet's digital strategy, and how content can be produced across different platforms.

We spoke to managing director of Al Jazeera English Al Anstey about what the news outlet's digital strategy is, how the message is being spread to staff across the world, and what new opportunities digital is presenting for its journalism.
  • 'De-constructing the TV package'

For any broadcaster, one of the big questions on digital has been how to make the most of their video online and on mobile. Anstey explained how previously, the approach within the industry may have been to simply copy over television broadcast pictures onto the outlet's website. But times have changed, he said.

Today, the outlet will not only create a standard television package, around two minutes in length, but then aims to "de-construct' it.

From the video collected, the full-length interviews, the audio and the images, there is suddenly "an incredible amount of material which is available to us", he explained, when you go back to the roots of a TV package.

We need to make sure we're adding the value, we're adding the depth, we're giving the full picture, we're giving the backgroundAl Anstey, Al Jazeera
"What you've got is gold dust that hit the cutting room floor," he said, explaining that much of the content which did not perhaps make the two-minute package, is actually incredibly valuable in terms of delivering extra value, context and understanding for digital readers or viewers.

This idea is supported by the nature of the web, and "greater space" available, he said, and results in "a much greater opportunity to engage with the content," he added.

"There is this mass of information out there. We as journalists need to get the integrity of that information absolutely right, but also we need to make sure we're adding the value, we're adding the depth, we're giving the full picture, we're giving the background, we're giving the content."

"If people want to know more, they can know more because of digital now."

Engagement across screens

Continuing with the theme of engagement, and there is also opportunity on digital platforms to interact with their audience "on the same level as them".

The key example of this at Al Jazeera English is The Stream, which was first launched by the outlet in April 2011. The daily programme utilises digital tools and social media platforms to hold open editorial meetings, engage with online communities around subjects of interest and even to bring in guests via the internet during the broadcast.

With a Twitter following of almost 120,000, community engagement is at the heart of The Stream, and the platform also recently launched a second-screen experience to support Al Jazeera America's version of the programme, in the form of a new app.

The app offers the reader further context and material to engage with in direct relevance to that day's programme, including polls to respond to.

Anstey said this understanding of how best to engage an audience around the same story or event, but on different platforms, and in a way that is "complementary", is another part of the outlet's digital strategy.
  • Multi-platform mindset

Part of the digital strategy relies on a multi-platform mindset, but with the caveat of understanding where people have specialisms that should be maximised. And underpinning all of this, Anstey added, is the quality journalism itself.

Across the outlet's 80 bureaus there needs to be a general understanding of what the digital strategy is and why it is important, he said, and there also needs to be 'buy in' from every member of staff.

And while staff need to think in a multiplatform way, Anstey is also passionate about '[working] to people's strengths".

"Some of our correspondents inevitably will be wonderful, brilliant, excellent TV correspondents, but they're not that engaged on Twitter.

"So don't force the hand of a journalist if they are not already experienced in a platform like Twitter, or with some of the other content we need to do."

"Don't stretch what you've got in order to offer up more material," he said. Instead, "understand what the resourcing is required in order to make it happen".

For Anstey, what is most important is "the foundation of the journalism, and the storytelling and DNA of Jazeera".

And he also highlighted that establishing the digital strategy across the world will be a gradual process.

We need to be agile and nimble in terms of how we adjust to digital strategy, so it actually works within the real worldAl Anstey, Al Jazeera English
It will be about "rolling out to the people who are multi-skilled" in certain circumstances, he explained,"rather than just going 'right, we're going to switch on digital strategy today'. For me it is an evolution."

And he is also bearing in mind the way technology will similarly develop and change over time.

"We need to be agile and nimble in terms of how we adjust to digital strategy, so it actually works within the real world," he said.

"In a year's time, our bureaus will fully understand and be engaged with the digital strategy, and understand what it means. But it will take time to get to that point."

  • Understand audience behaviour

Audience data is another area of development for Al Jazeera English. Anstey admitted that, like others, the outlet is not currently "fully-informed", when it comes to how audiences are consuming the outlet's content on mobile in particular.

But some more insight should be on its way soon, he said, "in the next few months", that will help them to "drill down a bit more".

The outlet has also met up with staff at YouTube and Google to discuss "audience behaviour".

  • Harness UGC 'opportunity'

On a final note, Anstey stressed the value of user-generated content (UGC) to Al Jazeera English, as well as the industry as a whole.

"They're eyewitnesses," he said. "They're not journalists, they're not reporters but they are, for me, the most enormous opportunity for journalism."

And while the flow of user-generated content, particularly from places in the world where Western journalists are either sparse in numbers of it is deemed simply too dangerous for them to work there, has meant stories being told "that we would never, ever have known about" even as close as five years ago, he added that the opportunity presents a critical "challenge" for journalists.

"The journalism's got to be as robust as ever to verify that information," he explained, also adding that he is passionate about journalists being transparent about what they know.

"You always declare your card on UGC," he said, adding that hoax content is also a risk.

"As the world gets smarter there are people who want to steer us off course, who are leveraging UGC and leveraging social media, to try and deliberately skew journalists off the real story," he said.

Therefore journalists must harness the opportunity, but in conjunction with "the highest ends of journalism".

And it should be something all journalists are thinking about when covering a story.

"It is part of what we do," Anstey said. "It's not siloed into big stories, it's not siloed into places where there aren't traditional journalists, like sometimes Iran or Syria."

No matter where the story may be, there is always the potential of user-generated content being part of your source material, so news outlets should "look at the UGC as much as we look at our own crews, and look at the agencies."

"It's got to be part of the journalistic job." he added, questioning how thoroughly a journalist who is not aware of the UGC opportunity can cover a story in today's world.

"If you had someone who didn't know about UGC content, or how to verify that, could they really, in this day and age, do a story in full? Without knowing what's out there?"

  • We met with Al Anstey during his visit to London last month to speak at the Polis conference about the #FreeAJStaff campaign, in relation to the ongoing detention of three members of Al Jazeera English in Egypt, who have now been detained for 100 days.

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