Al Jazeera Hire Allen Schauffler Concedes ‘Tremendous Branding Challenges’

Allen Schauffler, a 20-year veteran of King TV broadcasting, recalls being startled when he heard that Al Jazeera America was interested in him. “What, the terrorist network wants me to work for them?” he says he thought. “Then I started reading up on the people putting it together.”

What he says he soon learned is that the Qatar-based network-- a foreceful player on the international scene but perceived by some as seeing the world through an Arab slant sympathetic to insurgents--is serious about creating a bonafide cable news operation for an audience of “everyday Americans.”

Al Jazeera today announced that Schauffler will head its Seattle bureau—one of 12 opening up across the country. The 58-year-old broadcaster starts on Monday in an office on Westlake Ave. in the South Lake Union neighborhood, a vantage point that he notes allows him to look out on King TV from his window. Two others, a photographer and producer, will work with him.

He says he made the leap because he was ready for a change after his decades at King. But he admits that he will have “some tremendous branding challenges”--namely getting people to believe that Al Jazeera “is a news operation, not a Qatar government propaganda wing.”

In fact, the channel plans to assiduously avoid any political slant, according to Schauffler. “What they tell me they want to do stories right down the middle,” he says. That’s part of how he says the channel plans to distinguish itself from cable competitors like Fox and MSNBC, who have staked out clear ideological positions.

He says Al Jazeera’s stories will also run longer than ususal. The channel, which will go live on August 20, will operate 24 hours, but only have half as many commercials as its competitors, Schauffler says. “We will need a lot of product.”

In a statement, Marcy McGinnis, Al Jazeera America’s senior vice-president, says that the network’s correspondents will “report on a wide range of local, state and regional stories within the context of what it means for the rest of the country.”

For him, Schauffler says that might mean covering marijuana legalization, an issue locals are familiar with but that is new to people around the country. He also envisions reporting on the high-tech industry and environmental issues-- and not just in Seattle. He is responsible for covering a wide swatch of the Northwest including Oregon, Idaho, Alaska and British Columbia.

Viewers wanting to check out Al Jazeera America can do so on the former Current TV, co-founded by former vice-president Al Gore. Schauffler says he gets the channel—“125 in my house in Lake Forest Park”-- through Comcast.

Facing a cable landscape unwilling to run its Arabic and English-language channels based overseas, Al Jazeera bought Current in January and declared its intention to start an American operation. Since then, the network has been busy acquiring talent, including onetime CNN anchor Ali Velshi. But until today, it had not named staff for most of its bureaus.

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