My media habits: Ali Merchant of GrabAds – ‘I got rid of my TV so that I read more’

While GrabAds senior associate Ali Merchant cannot imagine himself reading a newspaper or listening to the radio, when it comes to books Kindle always loses out to physical copies – he tells Mumbrella's Dean Carroll

GrabAd’s Ali Merchant gets his news fix from social media and Flipboard every morning

What are your must-read news sources you can’t live without on a daily basis, and why are those particular media titles so important to you?

“I have a mix of topics that I’m interested in, ranging from entrepreneurship, technology, marketing to world news and opinions.

“One of the first things I do in the morning is get on to social media or open Flipboard to read news. I follow sources like Quartz, The Verge and Fast Company regularly.”

In terms of news consumption – do you prefer, print, television, radio, websites, newsletters, social networks, blogs, apps or something else entirely? 

“I grew up with screens. I can’t imagine reading a newspaper or listening to news on the radio.”

“It’s all on my mobile or my laptop and via social networks, websites and apps. I recently discovered Pocket, which is an app that let’s you save articles and read the ones that your friends have saved.”

Do you prefer long-form or short-form content?

“Depends on the topic and whether I’m watching or reading. I am addicted to Vox’s Netflix show ‘Explained’, which has 15 minute episodes on key issues that impact our lives.”

Bill Gates – an unlikely choice for favourite journalist

Can you name your favourite journalist and set out what makes them great? 

“Not really a journalist, but someone I follow quite religiously is Bill Gates on his blog Gates Notes. I love his thoughts on innovation, his conversations with cool people he’s met and, most excitingly, his book recommendations.”

What piece of journalism has changed the game in recent times, in your view? 

“Three books by the Israeli historian, professor and author Yuval Noah Harari. He provocatively and very creatively captures the idea of why humans exist, what’s coming in the future and how we can tackle tomorrow’s challenges.”

Are there any titles you have paid subscriptions to? 

“Quartz used to be free and then they added a fee. I really enjoy their articles and the way they break down complex topics, with compelling facts and figures. I had to get myself to subscribe.

“I must confess that I also leech my girlfriends ‘Financial Times’ login every now and then. She works in finance and has corporate billing. It is great for business and global economy trends.”

In terms of films and shows, is your preference for terrestrial television or streaming platforms like Netflix? 

“I don’t currently own a television. I got rid of it so that I read more. I stream Netflix on my laptop or my phone.”

Are recommendation engines a good thing or do they cancel out the joy of serendipity in terms of discovering fresh content not aligned with your previous preferences? 

“Recommendation engines are great for personalising and giving people what they might like. However, good suggestions or bad, don’t we all spend tons of time browsing/deciding/arguing what to watch on Netflix?”

What was the best film you saw of late – and can you describe why it made an impression on you? 

“Not really a film, but a documentary called ‘The American Meme’. It perfectly captures our behaviour online and on social media today. It talks about what people expect as ‘followers’ and brings in perspectives from social media superstars who have built online empires. It’s very relatable.

“I also, enjoyed ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’. The animation was amazing and it featured a new Spider-Man: Miles Morales who is a great extension to the franchise.”

And what shows do you consider to be event TV, those programmes you just have to watch and can’t contemplate missing? 

“I’m really into food and I’ve binge-watched every season of ‘Chef’s Table’ and ‘Ugly Delicious’. I like a lot of foreign language shows like ‘Money Heist’ and ‘Fauda’. I can’t wait for ‘Game of Thrones’ this April. Monday’s will never be the same.”

In terms of devices, how do you access content most often – on mobile, desktop, tablet, laptop or television? 

“Mobile and desktop.”

How damaging is piracy and illegal downloads when it comes to the media and entertainment space? 

“It’s quite unethical. However, it also gives access to a broader set of people who wouldn’t have it otherwise. It’s a double edged sword and I don’t think it will ever stop.”

And moving on, what’s been your favourite book in recent times?I couldn’t put down ‘Born a Crime’ by Trevor Noah. It’s a fascinating memoir into the struggles of his childhood, covers a bunch of serious issues, yet is peppered with bits of comedy gold.

“I am currently hooked onto ‘Bad Blood’ by John Carreyrou.”

So Kindle or hard copy? 

“Definitely hard copy. I find a sense of comfort in holding a book and turning pages. Who doesn’t love the smell of books and bookstores?”

And now to music. How do you buy and consume music? 

“I subscribe to Spotify Premium.”

American rapper Post Malone

Which musical artists appeal to your tastes right now? 

“I’m pretty open to everything from deep house to jazz.  I use the ‘Discover Weekly’ feature on Spotify everyday. Also, I’ve currently got Post Malone on repeat.”

Social networks: Hero or villain when it comes to giving you access to content?  

“Definitely hero. I discover new things everyday from friends, family, celebrities, brands and businesses all over the world.”

And are social networks like Facebook and Twitter actually media companies these days in your view, even though that is something they deny – perhaps to avoid further regulation? 

“They’ve always been about ads and media. That’s how they monetise and make billions. Well, at least Facebook is built on those foundations (Twitter survives because of Donald Trump’s account). I’m in the same business and there are no two ways about it.”

In the digital world, algorithms rather than humans are the media gatekeepers. Do you miss the old days when the likes of journalists, critics and broadcasters played that qualitative role, or have we simply evolved to a better quantitative system? 

“Yes there are algorithms, but great journalists now have a wider set of platforms to broadcast their work. And people have unlimited ways to discover things: from WhatsApp to social networks. Also, today everyone and anyone can play journalist and have a point of view online.”

Finally, what does the future hold for the media space in your view – will artificial intelligence and virtual personal assistants take over to the point where we just trust the machines to tell us what we want to consume, in terms of news and entertainment?

“It’s already happening. Aside from what humans share with other humans, a lot of what is served to us online is through algorithms. Sometimes, this content is irrelevant, but I’m sure we will learn to trust algorithms more as the accuracy increases.

“I think beyond telling us what to consume, AI will also create things for us to consume. I heard that someone created an AI and taught it how to compose music.”


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