Are Software Developers the New Storytellers? Ken Auletta Reveals How “Geeks” Are Changing the News Cycle

Are Software Developers the New Storytellers? Ken Auletta Reveals How “Geeks” Are Changing the News Cycle

A Conversation with Ken Auletta on the Future of Media, Advertising and Impact of Mobile Devices

NEW YORK, NY — Ken Auletta has written extensively about media at The New Yorker and has authored 10 books that include Three Blind Mice: How the TV Networks Lost Their Way and Googled: The End of the World As We Know It. Mr. Auletta was a guest speaker at the Digital Place-based Advertising Association’s annual media buying and planning summit held in New York. Barry Frey, President and CEO of the DPAA, talked with Mr. Auletta about the state of media and its future in a room packed with more than 450 advertising and media executives. Here are highlights from the session, which have been condensed and edited. Mr. Frey led the talk with some of the questions coming from the audience.

The media landscape has gone through profound changes over the last decade. New platforms have emerged and people are consuming content in new ways. Where do you see media going?

You have to start with mobile. There will be more than 5 billion cell phones in the world by the end of this year. Google just put out a report that said 40% of all YouTube videos are now being accessed on mobile devices—that’s an extraordinary figure. Obviously that leads us to the advertising because one of the big questions is how do you advertise on mobile devices? It seems to me that there’s both good news and bad news for advertisers. The good news is you have many more options in terms of platforms you can appear on. The bad news is: how do you reach people on mobile devices without turning people away? There’s also government pressure related to privacy, and perhaps the biggest thing that’s out there is that the consumer increasingly is empowered to make choices that may not be to the advertiser’s advantage or any medium’s advantage.

Where does this business go? Is it the algorithms that run the show and do we still need storytellers?

Of course we do. When I was embedded at Google, they had just purchased YouTube for $1.6 billion. Back in 2008, YouTube was loosing $1 billion a year, yet they had more than 40% of all the Web traffic. How was that even possible? It was possible because those brilliant engineers at Google—and they are brilliant—started by saying: (a) we’re not going to ask permission to do things, we’re just going to do it; (b) we’re going to assume that the old ways of doing things are inefficient; and (c) we’re going to assume that we are going to come up with a better, more efficient way to do things. So they came up with YouTube, and the engineers say, “Look at all this traffic, isn’t this fabulous!” Then Google’s Eric Schmidt says, “Well, this is terrific traffic, but how do you monetize it?” The truth is that advertisers don’t want to be associated with questionable content. Google had to figure out a way to serve content in a more advertiser-friendly environment, and YouTube is making a fortune today.

Sometimes you have a company that’s running with a great technology and sometimes the company has a great idea, but what you’re really saying is that at the end of the day it really needs both?

Yes, you really need both. You need to develop a vehicle in which to tell your story, a hook that captures readers’ attention and draws them in. When I first started out at The New Yorker many years ago, I wanted to do a story on poverty and one of the most valuable pieces of journalistic advice I ever got was from William Shawn [Editor of The New Yorker from 1951 – 1987]. I said to Mr. Shawn that something was going on with poverty. When you go on a subway in New York you see angry people, and then you look at the statistics of people who are out of work and no longer looking. You look at drug incidence and facts like murder by stranger, which was a huge statistic that had risen dramatically. Something is going on and I don’t know what it is, but I’d like to figure it out, it’s more than just poverty. He looked at me and he said “Mr. Auletta, that’s a very interesting sociological yap piece. What you need is a vehicle to tell your story.” That was a piece of advice that has always stayed with me. When you think about the new digital world, one thing that is different is that you still need storytellers, but you also need engineers. When Mark Zuckerberg invents Facebook, and my daughter is spending a half hour on Facebook, that’s a half hour that she is not spending watching TV looking at your ads or reading a book, so is Mark Zuckerberg a storyteller? In that sense he is.

One of the problems the newspaper industry currently faces is the diminishing amount of time people spend with the medium. How do you price advertising when consumer behavior is so vastly different across print and digital platforms?

The average reader of the New York Times spends roughly 35 minutes a day with the print version of the paper; in contrast, the average reader of the New York Times online spends less than 30 minutes per month. So if you’re an advertiser and you look at these statistics, you’re not going pay the same rate for that digital reader as you do for a newspaper reader.

Social media has changed the pace of the news cycle and there’s far less opportunity to verify information. What do you think the future holds for media if we continue along this path?

Speed is often the enemy of understanding, and lack of space is also an enemy. Increasingly in the digital world, particularly because of mobile devices, people are snacking on news. Services like Buzzfeed are serving up short 15-second videos with the idea that people can snack to keep up with information. This is one of the reasons why viewership of the evening newscasts is going down—people have already gotten their news. But a 15-second snack isn’t the same as an investigative report in the New York Times—and that’s a problem. If people take that snack, not as a snack, but as an appetizer before the meal, then that’s good, but will they? I can make two sets of arguments, one optimistic and one that’s pessimistic, and it really depends on my mood that day. When I think about it I tend to be more pessimistic, but I don’t think you can wake up every day and be a pessimist. I think this is a pitfall of a lot of people in traditional media. I think you need to wake up every day and see the digital world, not as a problem but as an opportunity.

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