Brunswick Review The Resilience Issue

Jill Abramson on the Value of News

Ms. Abramson discusses the upheaval in the news business, as described in her book, "Merchants of Truth."

In 2011, Jill Abramson became the first female Executive Editor of The New York Times, making her arguably the highest-ranking female editor in US newspaper history. No woman has ever topped the editors’ ranks at America’s two other newspaper giants, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. Three years into that job, Ms. Abramson was fired for pushing back against efforts she perceived as blurring the line between news and advertising. She set out then to write a book about upheaval in the news business, focusing on two stalwarts, The New York Times and The Washington Post, and two up-starts, BuzzFeed and Vice. The result is Merchants of Truth, published this February. Ms. Abramson shared her thoughts and insights about the industry with us at Brunswick’s New York office. 

As you wrote Merchants of Truth, the prospects of the organizations you researched shifted significantly. That must have required you to scramble. 
The reason I focused on BuzzFeed and Vice is that during my last months at The Times, The Times produced an innovation report that was kind of dripping with envy for those two sites. They were getting so big and they had so much money from ads. They were pioneers in a type of advertising called Native Advertising, which closely mimics the content of the online site. I am critical of it, and didn’t want to dive into it at the Times when I was executive editor, because it isn’t always clear to the reader what’s advertising and what’s news.

After starting out as entertainment sites, BuzzFeed and Vice began building serious newsrooms, and they discovered that it is very expensive to do investigative journalism, watchdog journalism, enterprise journalism, international journalism. 

That was fine when BuzzFeed and Vice were in go-go growth mode, adding millions of readers and viewers. But then that growth slowed. Digital advertising became competitive, and Facebook and Google gobble up so much of it that everybody else is left to scramble for new sources of revenue. Now, BuzzFeed is having to turn itself inside out because their original model was all advertising supported. Both BuzzFeed and Vice announced cuts of 250 people each just a few months ago.

Meanwhile, following Trump’s election, suddenly it was the old, reliable newspaper companies, which had forced themselves to become “digital first” operations but still had very high-quality news reports, that started to do much better and become stronger, thanks to subscription revenue. And the new all-digital news players were facing life-threatening challenges.

One reviewer of your book asked a scary question: “Is there any hope left for an independent Fourth Estate?” 
For society it is vital. The New York Times and The Washington Post are going to survive. The Wall Street Journal is going to survive. But to survive, you have to be big—national or global in reach. You have to have coverage that people are not finding anywhere else. When you have that at high quality, readers will pay for it. Now that Trump is president, The New York Times has 4 million subscribers.

But my optimism does not apply to smaller newspapers that have been in a cutting mode or have been acquired by vulture capital funds and stripped down for parts. Their news reports are diminished. They’ve ceded their watchdog roles. Frankly, a lot of them are not worth paying for. About 500 have been shuttered over the past several years.

But ahead there may loom an existential question even for large news organizations like The Times and The Post, which is now owned of course by Jeff Bezos. Even with a billionaire owner and millions more digital subscriptions, can a newspaper continue to remain independent and not be bought by these voracious platforms like Netflix and Hulu, which are so interested in documentary style stories?

Could the newspaper industry have foreseen and better prepared for the disruption caused by the internet?
The tragedy is that a lot of people in the news business did recognize that the digital transition was happening and happening quickly. But because of their internal corporate cultures and the culture of their newsrooms, which were formed according to the rhythms of the printing press once a night, they just didn’t act fast enough.

They thought that the newspaper version of their news reports would stay dominant for longer than it did, so that the urgency of becoming digital first, and thinking of publishing online first, took forever. And in that gap a lot of time and money was lost.

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Are you concerned about the widespread belief that the news just can’t be trusted?
I am so concerned about that. Restoration of trust is vital, and one disappointment I had in my book is that I was not able to come up with new solutions for a lot of the problems that bedevil journalism.  I do think that because attacks from Fox News and Sinclair and the Trump administration are so loud, news organizations have to become much louder in defending the importance and integrity of what we do every day. I rather like The Post’s slogan, “Democracy dies in darkness.”

What we do is no less important than when the founders created the First Amendment, seeing us as critical watchdogs against abuse of over-centralized power. Somehow we’ve thought it’s not our job to carry that message. It is our job—and for trust to be restored that message has to be louder.

Will The New York Times and The Post go the way of traditional British papers by leaning hard in a particular political direction? 
Aren’t we there? Not to the same extent as in Britain. But on some days of heavy Trump developments, the news pages, particularly the headlines, bear an unmistakably anti-Trump coloring.

What intensifies that is, because Facebook has disaggregated everybody’s news reports, it’s made the branding of individual reporters more important. Something like a dozen of the Washington reporters for The Times have cable TV contracts on MSNBC and CNN. They go on these panels with partisans and former prosecutors. And though The Times and Post reporters on these shows may be careful and measured in what they say, it’s the lead-in questions and the rest of it that leads viewers to question their objectivity.

Since I started writing a political column for The Guardian, it’s gotten harder for me to find Republicans who will even talk to me. I’m trying to present both sides. But they say, “No, I don’t think I want to be identified in  your column.” I guess it suggests treason for them to be talking with Jill Abramson, the former executive editor of the “failing New York Times.”

Would you, given the way events have unfolded, have chosen a different career?
Right after college I worked on a couple of campaigns, and toggled between becoming a journalist or full-time political activist.

Now, for the first time since then, I’ve found myself wondering whether you do more good trying the difficult and impossible task of electing people who are going to make the world better, or doing investigative journalism that opens people’s eyes to issues and things they need to know about. I’ve loved my career in journalism. It’s not like I have any regrets. But in the end, which path would have done the most good?

It would be very funny if, for 2020, I went back to working in a campaign, which isn’t completely out of the question.

Kevin Helliker is Editor in Chief of the Brunswick Review and a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist.

Top Illustration: Serge Bloch

Illustration of Jill Abramson: Natalya Balnova

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