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So What Do You Do, Ken Auletta?
The New Yorker's media writer spills the beans on exactly how he does his job- January 16, 2007
When last we interviewed Ken Auletta, he had just released Backstory, a collection of writings from his decade at The New Yorker.
He won't tell us what he's working on now ("Because I have such long lead times, you'll have to torture me!") but we can guess that whatever it is will be long, detailed and full of exclusive tidbits that could be a headline many other places. His recent profile of Lou Dobbs, for example, pegged the outspoken anchor's yearly compensation at $6 million -- a figure that has been the subject of guesswork for years -- and Auletta says he triple-sourced it through means he won't disclose.
Whether for books or magazine articles, Auletta writes with a grace, authority and detail born of hard work, scads of cross-referenced notes, multiple repeat interviews, and as much research as possible. Which is why, we guess, his wife calls him what she does (see below).
Auletta spoke, then emailed with mediabistro.com's editorial director, Dorian Benkoil.
Name: Ken Auletta
Position: Author and Annals of Communications Media Writer
Publication: The New Yorker
Education: B.S., State University of New York at Oswego; M.A. in Political Science, the Maxwell School at Syracuse University
Hometown: Brooklyn, New York
First job: Working Summers at Pat's Sporting Goods store in Coney Island at age nine for my dad, Pat Auletta.
Previous three jobs: I have written for The New Yorker since 1977, and also written a weekly political column for the New York Daily News from 1977 to 1993, and have authored ten books. Before 1977 is a blur of stuff.
Birthdate: April 23, 1942
Marital status: Married
Favorite TV show Do I have to choose? I’m addicted to The Sopranos, 24, and Studio 60.
Last book read Two simultaneously: Richard Ford’s, The Lay of the Land, and Lawrence Wright's, The Looming Tower.
Most interesting media story right now Pass.
First section of your Sunday paper: Sports.
Guilty pleasure Pasta.
You've covered the media for years, many of those years for The New Yorker. Do you ever get bored of it? (What makes it continue to hold your interest?)
I don’t get bored because the media is not one small planet but a galaxy of planets with an ever changing cast of characters. Once, media was pigeonholed as journalism. Now its software and cable and the Web and books and networks and satellite television and PDAs and cell phones and video games, among others. Myspace and YouTube are, in part, new distribution systems.
Change is a given, and it's hard to get bored with something that is always new. One can argue that the invention of electricity in the 19th Century had a more profound impact on society than the Internet (which is powered by electricity). But what is different today is the velocity of change. Think how long it took the telegraph, or the telephone, or radio and television, to become mass mediums. And then think of the less than five years it took the i-Pod.
Does it ever feel a little incestuous, being both in the media as something of a celebrity and also writing about it?
If a journalist remembers that the audience is the reader, not the subject of the article, and aims to get as close to the truth as possible, not make a friend, then the trap is avoided. I'm not personal friends with the people I cover. But I like people and have reasonably good manners and know that people open up more freely if the interviewer's style is not that of a dentist drilling teeth.
Do you have an assistant or researcher or do you do all the work yourself?
It’s a ma and pa operation without the ma.
How long does it take you to prepare for an interview you conduct? For a profile you do?
There’s no single answer to this question. Generally, I try and spend weeks reading about the subject. And if I am profiling someone, I seek more than one interview. In this case, the first interview is usually autobiographical. Then I try to interview associates, friends, competitors, analysts, etc., collecting information and questions that better prepare me for the second round.
What's the trick to digging up all the details you use throughout your pieces? (For example, you peg Lou Dobbs' compensation at $6 million per year, with no hedging. How do you get that so precisely.)
I’d be a schmuck to tell you how I got something that did not have a named source. I had three sources for the $6 million, and my editor and the factchecker who called the sources or listened to my digital recording were satisfied.
How do you take notes, stay organized? What's your system for getting such detail in your pieces and keeping them all organized?
With some merit, my wife calls me anal. I create three digital files: a) what I call an index of all the materials I collect; b) a file of people I wish to interview or things I need to read; c) a file of questions to be asked of each person to be interviewed. Of these files, the most vital for me is the index. For a long piece, the index can run to fifty single-spaced pages, and consists of a cross-reference system of each interview or document.
I number each notebook and document, and make a headline in the index of what someone said that I might want to use, followed by, say (A, p.30), which to me means notebook A and page 30 of the pages I have numbered; documents get numbers (10, p.64); and books get Roman numerals (IV, p290). I break it into subjects — possible Leads, Chronology, Bio, Observations, Themes, etc. — and place each entry in these categories.
At the end of the reporting, I take several days to study the index, which I hope helps me climb above the trees. Then I move it around on my screen like a deck of cards and slowly organize a narrative. I write off the index and place a checkmark next to each headline, allowing me to see, when the first draft is finished, what left out and included.
What's your favorite medium and outlet to produce? Magazine articles? Newspaper articles? Books? A mix? Do you like going on TV?
Having written a column and done TV, I have a strong bias for long form journalism. The New Yorker and books give me the most satisfaction, the space to convey complexity, the grey as well as black and white.
Many writers are, to put it bluntly, disheveled. You seem to take great care with your appearance and look very polished. Why is that important to you, and the image you wish to project?
I like nice clothes, and I’m fairly neat. I do, however, bite my nails.
Your story (well, in magazine terms, a tome) on Howell Raines became a bit of an irony when he resigned. In hindsight, would you change anything if you could? How about a follow up to it? Considering that?
Actually, I thought the Raines piece gave readers a sense of his hubris and arrogance, as well as his talent. When he was forced out a year later as Executive Editor of the Times, I felt that those who read my piece had a context to understand why.
How much influence do you think your stories have? Does the influence surprise you?
It’s really dangerous for a journalist to think about "influence." Our job is to ask questions, and if we're puffed up with our own self-importance we will want to answer questions, not ask them.
How many stories do you write a year? What's your deal? Contract? Full employee? Are you well-compensated?
I’m supposed to write at least a certain number of words per year for The New Yorker.
You work from home. How'd you get to do that? Why do you?
I like to be close to my refrigerator.
How did you get where you are, at what could be considered the pinnacle of magazine writing? What was the path (for those who may wish to emulate it).
Life rarely follows a straight line. I was a jock in high school with a 64 average and an attitude. I got into the State University at Oswego because the baseball coach thought I had a promising fastball. I almost flunked out, then found a new me, which including editing the underground newspaper at college; then thought I’d like the Foreign Service; then government and politics; then I got bored in a Ph.D political science program and left to be a gofer and write speeches in politics; then on to serve in government; then to work for Bobby Kennedy before he was sadly killed; then to serve as campaign manager for a wonderful man running for Governor of New York who, with my help, lost; then a daily reporter for the New York Post, followed by writer for the Village Voice and New York magazine, where I wrote mostly about politics and government. Then books on disparate subjects like New York’s economy, poverty, Wall Street, the Microsoft anti-trust trial.
If you weren't writing about media, what would you be doing?
Visiting some other planet as a journalist.
How do you choose your subjects?
I consult a Medium.
What kind of story do you find most satisfying?
Profiles of complex people through whom you can tell a larger story.
What story would you say you're proudest of? How'd you get it?
One would be a story I reported in 1992 for the New Yorker about Barry Diller’s quest to figure out the future by taking six months to visit everyone from Bill Gates and Steve Jobs to the MIT lab and old media folks, all the while he was learning to use his new Apple Powerbook laptop to try and figure out the new world of digital connectivity. It was an early piece on the emerging digital future back when I thought @ was spelled "at" and .com was dot-com. I’ve never gotten a bigger response to any piece.
The idea came from one of the most valuable things I did when I started writing about the media for The New Yorker in 1992. Tina Brown was the new editor and she asked if I would write under the Annals of Entertainment rubric. Having just published a book about how the "old media" industry of the networks was challenged by new technologies -- Three Blind Mice -- I said Annals of Entertainment was too narrow to capture the convulsive change in the media. I suggested it should be written under a wider framework, Annals of Communication, and that I would want to write nothing for five months and instead go out and do what I later learned Barry Diller was doing. Tina quickly blessed the idea.
With the calling card of a respected magazine, having interviewed a fair number of the folks who were challenging the old media television networks for my Three Blind Mice book, and with assurances that I would treat this as a seminar and use information but not quote them, I wound up visiting about 60 individuals and institutions. We talked about things they wouldn’t talk about on-the-record, like: Where they felt their business was vulnerable? What kept them awake nights? I probably generated a dozen story ideas from these visits, and one grew out of my visit with Diller.
As coverage of media has increased tremendously, do you find it harder to stay ahead, find original angles, really new takes on things?
What do you think of the Internet? Use it? Changes your life at all? Technology in general? We don't see a blog you have. Any MySpace page? Why or why not?
The Internet allows journalists to do a fair amount of research — newspaper or magazine clips, SEC filings, campaign contributions, annual reports, correct spelling — without getting up from our desks; it also allows quick and efficient e-mail communication to set up interviews or clarify things. Among other innovations, digital technology allows me to shuck tapes and record interviews on a digital recorder, plug the recorder’s memory stick in a slot, make a back-up disc, split my screen and using a track ball to review the interview, and type in the quote I want.
I have a website, kenauletta.com, which contains all my pieces, links to my books, and other stuff. I prefer to read rather than compose blogs. And I don’t have a MySpace page ("transparency" has its limitations).
How does The New Yorker have to change in order to compete with today's changing media landscape? How does it NOT have to change?
The New Yorker — like The New York Times, The Economist, or NPR — is in the enviable position of being rewarded for quality journalism. Each has, to borrow a phrase that is uttered more often than it is understood, a "brand" that stands for something. The New Yorker adds really good fiction, art, and writing to the mix.
All-time favorite New Yorker cover? Cartoon?
That’s like asking, What’s my favorite pasta?
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