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Al Jazeera’s digital news venture AJ+ launches with a dedicated iPhone app

How can a traditional TV news organization cater to people who don’t watch TV anymore, much less traditional cable news? Folks at Al Jazeera have been puzzling over this question for years. This week, the Qatar-based news organization is launching a first version of an answer: AJ+, a new news network that doesn’t live on TV, or even the web, but produces content for and hopes to engage its audience through an iPhone app.

The new AJ+ app, which officially launched on the app store Monday morning, is organized around topical stacks of cards, with stacks ranging from Ferguson to ISIS and from police brutality to marijuana legalization. Each stack comes with a few videos, ranging from very short newsy clips to slightly longer features and explainers. There are also infographics, room for users to comment, polls and occasionally quizzes. And each stack of cards is part of a stream that can be quickly browsed through, reminiscent of Instagram or Vine.

The card-based model may at first look a bit like the way Vox.com tries to organize explainer content, but the key difference here is that AJ+ is putting an emphasis on video. AJ+ soft-launched in June, when it began to publish some of these videos on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.

AJ+’s Executive Director of Strategy and Development Yaser Bishr told me last week that [company]AJ+[/company] clocked around 7 million video views in that beta phase, even without any kind of promotion. That may not be a whole lot when compared to music videos or the latest viral hits, but it is if notable you are talking about heavy topics like race and prison or the war in Ukraine. Now, Al Jazeera wants to drive those numbers a lot higher. “We have a pretty extensive marketing plan,” he said, adding: “This is not a dress rehearsal anymore.”

screen568x568Al Jazeera has been working on plans for an all-digital network since 2010, and began to staff up for the launch of AJ+ since late last year, when it built out the former [company]Current TV[/company] studio as the network’s home base. AJ+ now has a staff of 80, with most of them working out of San Francisco, said Bishr. The team wants to launch an Android app next, and Al Jazeera is looking to launch an Arabic version of AJ+ in the coming months as well. However, there seems to be no rush to launch a full-fledged website. “I want to stay true to our audience,” Bishr said, adding that most of those users are on mobile devices.

So how does AJ+ intend to make money? Apparently not with oldschool advertising. Bishr categorically ruled out mobile or banner ads, but said that at some point, AJ+ may venture into sponsored content, or monetize its own videos by licensing them to others.

But Bishr also stressed that there is not a lot of pressure for Al Jazeera, which is funded by the ruling family of Qatar, to be profitable with a venture like this. “We have a lot of runway to monetize,” he said. Instead, AJ+ will have a mandate to find and engage that very audience that’s beyond reach other newscasters and Al Jazeera’s traditional news networks alike.

AJ+ isn’t alone at trying to capture this audience. It competes with outlets like [company]Vice[/company] News and [company]Buzzfeed[/company], but also YouTubers and YouTube networks, all of which don’t turn to the TV screen, but to Facebook, Twitter and mobile screens to find their audience. AJ+ is unique and interesting in that it comes from a traditional news organization, which tries to reinvent things online, because it knows it has to.

Said Bishr: “Digital is Al Jazeera’s future.” And AJ+ is its attempt to get there without being stuck with the way things have been done in the past.

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