Ken Auletta: "Digital is almost as disruptive to traditional media as electricity was to the candle business"
If there is anyone who has a clue about what’s happening today with journalism and the media industry, that person is Ken Auletta.
In addition to covering media for The New Yorker since 1992, Auletta has written several books about the impact of technology on the news and media business, including the bestseller “Googled: The end of the world as we know it.”
In this Q&A with IJNet, Auletta weighs in on the digital revolution, The Huffington Post and why he doesn’t spend as much time as he would like on social media.
IJNet: What are the most disruptive changes to the media industry now?
Ken Auletta: The digital revolution is almost as disruptive to the traditional media business as electricity was to the candle business. For print, it eliminates paper, presses, and distribution. Since these are the majority of costs for newspapers and magazines, they should be welcomed.
The problem is twofold: it is not clear that readers will subscribe online for information they think they can get for free. And since readers spend much less time reading the same publication online as they do the print version, advertisers pay about one tenth for the same ad online as they do in a newspaper. And since most publications will not be abandoning readers who insist on the print edition, costs will remain high. To date, the savings from going online are not matched by the online revenues...
IJNet: You've written books about companies like Google and Microsoft and their impact on media. What can journalists learn from tech companies now?
KA: Among the most vital things to learn is the centrality of engineers. Engineers are efficiency experts, constantly asking, “Why can't we do this this way?” The folks who manage journalistic enterprises need engineers at their side because engineers are our new content creators. It is the engineers who can, for instance, design the cool apps on iPads for our publications or who can help make our stories go viral on social networks. Working journalists have to master digital multimedia, be as proficient at video, blogging and creating links as we are at reporting and composing our stories.
IJNet: In “Googled,” you write that early on in the digital revolution “old media companies were trapped in 'the innovator’s dilemma'" by "defending their existing business models" and failing to change fast enough. Is that still the case?
KA: It will always be the case, and it is not just because legacy businesses are trapped by habits. Look at The New York Times. It is, I think the world's finest newspaper. And it is, in part, because it employs an astonishing 1,100 reporters and editors. But as readers search Google or go to news aggregators like The Huffington Post to fetch their news for free, the value of the Times’ business is threatened. So the Times strives to devise an online edition that offers more than what is in the daily newspaper and to charge for it, but they compete with free. The Times can cut its newsroom budget, but will it produce the same quality? It could try abandoning the print edition entirely, but they will lose readers who want to hold a paper in their hands and they will lose advertising revenue. That is "the innovator's dilemma." Newer digital media companies don't have legacy costs, big revenue streams to protect, or proud traditions to uphold.
IJNet: Some journalists are very active on social networks. (Nicholas Kristof of the Times who has over 200,000 followers on Facebook comes to mind), while others use them sparingly. You seem to fall into the latter category. Why is that?
KA: I don't find enough time in the day to read books and magazines, to answer my emails, to read all the websites and press notices pushed to me daily and that I surf for information, and to converse with friends and family. I applaud how Facebook and Twitter enriched Nick Kristof's reporting from the Arab Spring and elsewhere. I'm sure my output might be improved, but I worry more about what I would miss. Part of the task of someone who writes long form for The New Yorker or for books is to try and step back and escape the rush of news and opinion.