Journalist Auletta offers insight on Google
Ken Auletta, best-selling author and award-winning journalist for The New Yorker, talked about his profiles of powerful media moguls, pondered the future of information and offered advice to USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism students on Sept. 22.
“I like to think of what I do as visiting other planets,” Auletta said during a Visions and Voices event featuring insights he gained while researching his book Googled: The End of the World as We Know It.
“I wanted to visit ‘planet Google’ and understand their culture and their views,” he said. “One of the most important things I learned is what an engineer does. Half the employees of Google are engineers. Engineers begin with an attitude that the old ways of doing things are inefficient.”
Then, Auletta said, Google engineers ask: “Why not?”
Why not collect all the information from news sources and make it free? Why not offer free telephones? Why not offer free television via YouTube? Why not offer free software stored in a cloud instead of paying for Microsoft’s wares in a package?
The emerging empire’s way of doing things disrupted existing technology and the world of business.
Meanwhile, traditional news media were slow to react to Google’s disruptive technology. “They leaned back. They tended to complain that the digital world was out to kill them – that ‘oh, woe is me.’ And they didn’t invest in digital technology.”
Now traditional media are mired in a colossal “math problem” of how to produce professional content when online advertising nets so much less money than traditional advertising, he said. Traditional publishers are facing a similar quandary as they integrate digital publishing that generates less revenue. E-books, as Auletta pointed out, are a lot cheaper than hardcover books.
But the two worlds of digital and traditional media are moving closer together, which Auletta said is a reason for optimism.
“If you go to Google today, you can buy movies, you see professional ads, and YouTube is making a profit. Google has figured out through YouTube they can compete with Netflix, which is exactly what they want to do,” said Auletta, who added that Amazon and Apple are taking similar paths. “But where do they get the content? They have to go to traditional media companies – Hollywood studios and networks, cable companies – to buy that content. Just as Netflix does.”
The recent developments signal a shift in Google’s theory that all information should be free – an assertion that “terrorized newspapers and traditional media companies,” Auletta said.
“A generation is being taught that information is not free. You want to read a book, a newspaper, a magazine or watch TV or a movie – you have to pay for it. If you don’t, there aren’t going to be any more Martin Scorseses making movies, if you can’t make a living at it.”
Another encouraging sign comes from traditional media heavyweights “learning to throw things against the wall to see what sticks,” Auletta said. And the audience is open to those experiments.
He pointed out that The New York Times, just two quarters after instituting an online subscription requirement, has a half-million online subscribers. “That’s a very encouraging sign that maybe the world and the culture is changing, and people will be more willing to pay for information.”
Auletta offered advice for journalism students to keep in mind as they build their careers. Even though they will have to “do it all” by reporting, recording, blogging and transmitting – they must remember to develop the skill of listening as they gather information.
“Otherwise,” he said, “you’re not going to be able to hear what people say, and you’re not going to be able to report what the truth is.”
Auletta’s audience, which included USC alumni, staff and faculty from schools across campus, also got some life lessons from the author who has profiled media heavyweights Bill Gates, Rupert Murdoch, Harvey Weinstein and Ted Turner.
“There are two types of people in this world. There are people who lean back. They tend to be pessimists. They see the glass as half-empty. The other person leans forward, wakes up with a sense of optimism, doesn’t blame other people for their woes, sees a problem as an opportunity – not as something that’s defeating them.
“What kind of person do you want to be?”
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