A Q&A With Jill Abramson

The New Republic

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FUTURE OF THE TIMES AUGUST 19, 2013

A Q&A With Jill Abramson The Times' top editor on mean bosses, liberal biases, and the demise of the Washington Post

For generations, the publishers of the great American newspapers were accidents of birth—sons and daughters (and assorted other relatives) who inherited their positions atop the masthead. They may have been born into their roles, but that doesn’t mean they were born for them. These latter-day Sulzbergers, Bancrofts, and Grahams looked (and acted) misplaced in their corner offices, tentative and self-conscious. Their own palpable sense of unworthiness for their jobs, however, made them honorable stewards: They tried exceedingly hard not to screw up their inheritances, sometimes at the expense of necessary innovation.

With the recent sale of The Washington Post, The New York Times remains the only major paper in the hands of a storied publishing family. Or put differently, no other American daily has an owner with a proven record of challenging power, both political and corporate, on a daily basis. And the Sulzbergers have done even better than that. It is somewhat shocking to hear the family praised for business acumen, but it has played the vaunted long game, largely resisting the impulse to cull the newsroom and actually improving the paper in the midst of the industry’s austerity.

That’s not to say the institution is safe; far from it. The Times is obviously susceptible to the same implacable technological trends that ended the reign of the Grahams and obliterated the basis for the entire business. So, on the following pages, we’ve collected what the Times’ own reporters and editors privately propose to reform the paper. Then there’s the woman guiding the Times through this tenuous stretch, executive editor Jill Abramson. Michael Kinsley visited her office to ask about her own vision for the paper after one year on the job. The proposals contained in this package aren’t meant to nitpick; they are made in a spirit of solidarity, because, at this moment of looming danger, it has become something close to a patriotic obligation to subscribe to the paper. God save the Gray Lady.

Michael Kinsley: So I understand Newsweek scooped me. They had you on the cover, with an article by Lloyd Grove. I didn’t even know there was a Newsweek.1

Jill Abramson: Me neither. Or a cover.

MK: Or a Lloyd Grove for that matter.

JA: Well, I knew there was a Lloyd Grove.

MK: So, you know the cliché rap on you is that you’re mean?2

JA: Well my answer is, I’m not. And most of the people who know me well are somewhat surprised by that stereotype, just because I’m not someone who frequently expresses anger or acts in a high-handed way. I’m trying to think of the other stereotypical behaviors.

MK: You said once that you hope to improve. Do you feel you have improved?

JA: [Laughs] Well, I guess I don’t have much evidence to show that I have, but I actually feel that I have.

MK: So it’s been on your mind?


llustration by Pilgrym (Source Photo: Peter Yang)

JA: It’s been on my mind. It’s been on my mind to very fulsomely express myself when I am pleased with something. When a story turns out better than I had ever dreamed, or many colleagues here just go beyond the call of duty to finish a great piece of work, or they show immense bravery in how they go about reporting something. I definitely have increased the volume and frequency with which I express directly that they have both pleased me and made big sacrifices to make the Times as great as it is.

MK: So, enough about that. How has the Times changed, in your view, editorially—in terms of what kind of stories you run, how long they are, whether they tilt one way or the other ideologically?

JA: I would describe the change but not in ideological terms at all. I think that a great newspaper is one that puts a real premium on digging to get the story behind the story. I learned that back when I worked at the old Wall Street Journal, edited by Norm Pearlstine. That Wall Street Journal ran only two lengthy news-related stories a day on the front page. Any prayer of getting on the front page meant meeting that high standard. Different from now. But I think at The New York Times, there is that premium for deeply reported stories that show readers—not only tell them on the reporter’s authority—but show them how something transpired and who were the real strategists, and thinkers, and movers and shakers who made something happen. There’s so little of that in the journalism profession that, at the Times, we very smartly exploit the fact that we still have plenty of reporters on the ground actually gathering reporting and information, and vividly bringing the news to people.

MK:Well, Jill, leaving you out of it, would you say someone from Mars coming to read The New York Times for a month would recognize any ideological preference?

JA: Well, on the editorial and opinion pages they would.

MK: No, no, on the news pages.

JA: Um, I think that they would recognize a sort of cosmopolitan outlook that reflects that, even as we become international, we’re a New York–based news institution. I can see how the intensity of coverage on certain issues may to some people seem to reflect a liberal point of view. But I actually don’t think it does. And I’ve been a very close New York Times reader going back to when I began to read, and I don’t see it as profoundly different now. I think a lot about something: Abe Rosenthal was once asked what he wanted on his headstone, and he said he wanted it just to say, “He kept the paper straight.” And I think about that a lot. You can verify that in news meetings I sometimes say, “This is skewed too far to the left,” or “The mix of stories seems overweeningly appealing to a reader with a certain set of sensibilities and it shouldn’t.”

MK: Well, I’ll say what it looks like to me as a reader. I would say that The New York Times has a sort of Upper-West-Side sensibility, and the politics that go with it, which is fine with me. I also think that has become somewhat more true in the past year and half or so. And you think that’s just wrong.

JA: No, I can’t—it’s your perception, so I can’t say it’s wrong.

MK: Well, sure you can.

JA: OK.

MK: Is there anything that you can point to and say that this is a decision you made as executive editor that has turned out well, or are we still in the experimental stage?

I’m reluctant to toot my own horn and will resist, but I would say that I have been the strongest partner on the news side pushing for an integrated and highly innovative newsroom where we didn’t have a separate Web newsroom. It’s one newsroom and news report that we are constantly pushing out, and I would say I’ve been a leader of that effort.

MK: So what did you think of that Politico piece about you?

JA: I thought it was hurtful and seemed mean-spirited, but it comes with the territory; it just does.

MK: I thought it was absurd, and the anonymous quotes were really abused, but did that give you any pause about the use of anonymous quotes in what the Times might publish about other people?

JA: Well, we are careful. Our standards call for not using ad hominem nor ad feminam anonymous quotes, so, we just—we don’t do that.

MK: So what do you think about Politico? It has changed the landscape in Washington.

JA: So I read, in Mark Leibovich’s book.3

MK: That comes next. Do you look at Politico every day?

JA: I do. I look at it, I read Mike Allen’s e-mail in the morning. And if they break news, often it’s the kind of news that I have called “scooplets” that are interesting in the moment but somewhat evanescent in their importance. But I think that Politico is full of interesting political reporting. And I applaud that they seem to be sending their dogged reporters out all the time to actually cover things. I went to an Anthony Weiner appearance, and there was Maggie Haberman, waiting on the sidewalk for him to come up. I think she’s excellent. I think they have some excellent reporters.


Courtesy of Janet Fries
THE GRAY LADY
Abramson earned her reportorial reputation as a talented digger at The American Lawyer.

MK: What do you think about the Leibovich book?

JA: I’m very glad that it seems to be finding an audience. I read it when it was in manuscript and found it insightful and interesting.

MK: What medium do you read The New York Times on?

JA: It depends on what time of day it is, and for the first year that I was executive editor, I read it exclusively on my iPhone and iPad when I was home. And here in the office, I pay attention to it all day long on my phone and then on the computer. I’ve pretty much stopped using a laptop because I’m not line-editing a lot of things anymore.

MK: So you read drafts of articles on the phone?

JA: Yes, sometimes I do. But lately, in year two, I get up earlier than I ever have. I get up at six, and I actually spend an hour and fifteen minutes with the print paper every morning. I find that there’s always stuff I’ve missed—the serendipity of turning the pages and discovering something that was never talked about at a news meeting but is really interesting. To me, reading the print paper is still a richer experience. And, as Maureen Dowd used to say when I first knew her, “It’s the best time you can have for a dollar.” Now, of course, it’s $2.50.

MK: Will The New York Times be available on paper in five years?

JA: I think it will be available. I think there is a healthy audience of readers who really like the Times in print form. We have more than eight hundred thousand home-delivery subscribers who have been with us two years or more, at which point, they’re pretty well addicted to the thing.

MK: Arthur Sulzberger4 has a strategy, as I understand it, which is basically, We collect the news, and we curate it, and then people put it on any platform that comes along.

JA: Yes. Since I was managing editor under Bill Keller, we have published stories when they’re ready on whatever is the best-available platform.

MK: And are you driving your reporters nuts, because they have to file at all hours?

JA: Some of them are a little nuts. Before you came in, I was questioning an editor here, Susan Chira, about one of our reporters, Charlie Savage. Charlie is one of our reporters in Washington who was covering a hearing about the NSA eavesdropping and data-collection programs. And there are all kinds of other developments. The Guardian already broke a story, and he has been online trying to sort through the developments. He has filed a story on the Web already this morning, and he’s supposed to cover the hearing this afternoon. And I asked Susan, “Does he really have the time to cover the substance of the hearing and what’s been said?” I worry a little bit about that. A reporter like Charlie, and many other journalists here, value the ability to reach more readers in a more timely way, and get more feedback, and incorporate that into their further reporting. For the most part, they’re not nuts. They’re operating at the top of their game.

MK: So do you think the Times has got it figured out? You’ve got your very complicated system of how many pages a reader can get before the pay wall comes down.5 And you’ve got the system of gathering news twenty-four/seven, and various other things. You’re ahead of everybody else, it looks like. But are you there?

JA: I think it’s absurd, in the world and the competitive landscape that we face now, to ever feel that way. So no, I don’t feel like we’ve figured “it” out, because I don’t think there’s any “it.” We’re pursuing a smart strategy that combines our core strengths and exploits the fact that we’ve never deviated from either a journalistic or business strategy that is rooted in a belief that quality journalism pays.

MK Which do you prefer, The Daily Beast or The Huffington Post?


Courtesy of PatrickMcMullan.com
JILL ABRAMSON AND MAUREEN DOWD
The two friends at a White House Correspondents' Dinner Party in 2003.

JA: I’m not a regular reader of either. Other things I read link to both of them, so I’ll read stuff in both of them.

MK: That brings up an interesting point, which is that, near as we can tell, people are now getting their reading agenda from social media. They’re not getting it from the home page. Do you agree?

JA: Our homepage is still—incredibly—visited by millions of readers each day. But I’m aware and certainly not surprised, at this point, that referrals from people are incredibly potent in drawing audiences.

MK: The one thing people invariably say, when I mention I’m going to interview Jill Abramson—people who don’t know you well but who know you somewhat—is, “What’s the story with the accent?”6

JA: I’m going to make you call my sister up on the phone and see that she sounds exactly like me. It’s like a 320 Central Park West accent. Our mom sounded like us, too. But my mom could not tell which one of us was calling.

MK: But she could tell it wasn’t a third party.

JA: [Laughs] I’ve always sounded like this.

MK: As long as I’ve known you, you have.

JA: I’m not on television all that often. But always, I get reader mail whenever I’m on television, with a few offers of elocution lessons.

MK: Really? I know people who would like to have your accent—or speech defect, or whatever.

JA: Yeah [laughs].

MK: Do you regret having written a book about your dog?7

JA: No.

MK: It came out just as you were taking this job.

JA: Yeah, the timing was a little weird. But I still regularly get notes from people who say that book has been helpful to them or has been a source of pleasure, and I had a lot of fun writing it. No regrets.

MK: And do you regret saying that you learned things from your dog that you’ve applied to the newsroom?

JA: I think that that has been misinterpreted.

MK: Interpret it.

JA: Well, I think I said that partly in jest, but in that book, I wrote a lot about positive reinforcement and I think I was sort of humorously referring to that. There are the parallels, positive reinforcement usually gets you better results than expressing displeasure or—

MK: That’s what you were saying earlier.

JA: Yeah.

MK: So, what do you make of the sale of The Washington Post?

JA: Well, it’s certainly a historic development. I’m sorry to see the Grahams cede ownership of The Washington Post, because I think they’ve been fabulous stewards. I think they have the highest standards that have governed some of the best journalism of my lifetime, and so it’s a sad thing for quality journalism to see them relinquishing the Post.

MK: And do you know Jeff Bezos at all?

JA: I don’t know him. I have heard him speak a couple of times and think that it will be very interesting to watch what his stewardship looks like. And he himself in speeches has talked about the need for experimentation, and I think it will be very interesting, and possibly inspiring, to watch him try to come up with solutions to questions that Don Graham in his note to Post employees said he and Katharine Weymouth did not have answers to and couldn’t come up with.

MK: Do you feel Arthur is an unfairly picked-on figure to some extent?

JA: I certainly feel he has not gotten the amount of credit he deserves for continuing to fight for the highest-quality journalism in a very difficult environment. Even though in the newsroom, we’ve had two rounds of voluntary buyouts, going back to when I was managing editor, and then, after I became executive editor, he has continued to invest in what I think is the most important journalism of all, and that is having plenty of boots on the ground—journalists who are witnessing, and who are expert, and who are gathering the news in foreign countries and all across our country. By keeping up that investment, which the Sulzberger family sees as a mission, he has put the Times in a position to expand internationally, which is one of the centerpieces of our current strategy: to push out The New York Times and make it the quality news source internationally, just as years ago he led the push to make The New York Times the predominant national news source. And I think he has been visionary in these things and that the Sulzberger family has fought a very brave fight to show that quality journalism pays. I don’t think he gets enough credit for that, personally.

MK: Emily Bell of Columbia Journalism School, formerly of The Guardian, says, “Nice people do not necessarily make good editors.” What do you think about that?

JA: I don’t think being a good editor is personality-based. It’s skill-based. And I mean, I’ve read widely about different editors and they usually come across as more complex than either a nice person or a not-nice person, whether it’s Max Perkins, or Harold Ross, or Ben Bradlee, or anyone else.

Michael Kinsley is editor-at-large at The New Republic.

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PHOTO BY Pool/Reuters/Corbis

1

This Q&A is based on two conversations and some e-mail correspondence. It has been edited and condensed.

2

This was the argument in a controversial profile of Abramson published in Politico.

3

This Town by Mark Leibovich, recently published.

4

Publisher of The New York Times.

5

The paper installed a pay wall in 2011, with the hopes of converting some of its vast Internet readership into digital subscribers.

6

To listen to an audio clip of this portion of the interview, click below.

7

The Puppy Diaries: Raising a Dog Named Scout

Abramson Was Here

THREE FRONT PAGES THAT BEAR HER FINGERPRINTS

 

Pet Issues: Abramson made her bones as a D.C. investigative reporter who broke news on campaign finance. As newsroom boss, she drove the Times to own that big 2012 story.

Dramatic Flair: Abramson did some theater at Harvard. She has been unafraid of dramatic layouts, as this elegant, heartbreaking post-Sandy Hook page one shows.  

Curveballs: She also likes unexpected personell moves and prizes cultural savvy. Hence: Political reporter Jim Rutenberg on the Hamptons beat (and "Snooki" references in headlines).

 

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