A Conversation with Jill Abramson

Leading one of the world’s most influential news outlets offers unique insight into the modern age of reporting. Jill Abramson, former Executive Editor of the New York Times, has witnessed radical changes sweeping the journalism and media industries. Observing these disruptions, her new book Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts follows the evolution of four major companies: The New York Times, The Washington Post, Buzzfeed, and VICE.

On March 1st, the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy hosted Abramson for a conversation with CCLP Director Geoffrey Cowan and Journalism School Director Gordon Stables. The fully packed Annenberg forum learned about her pioneering achievements in the industry, the transformations and threats facing journalism today, and the difficulty of administering facts.

A significant period of Abramson’s career was focused on the investigation of Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill, which became the subject of Strange Justice, a book she co-authored. At the time of the controversy, much of Washington felt that no one could determine the facts. “That is never true — I never accept that something can’t be known, and that you can’t get to the truth with enough digging and reporting,” Abramson said.

After over a decade of holding senior editorial positions at the New York Times, Abramson was the first female to rise to Executive Editor, which incited many triumphs. “I wanted to see the great women editors who I’d worked with for years and years get promoted. The masthead jobs are the highest ranked and have always been male dominated. It took me only a year to achieve fifty percent parity,” she shared. While the position enabled her to improve equality in the newsroom, her leadership also attracted criticism.

“When a woman gets the top job, she is called too direct, brusque, bitchy. It’s a real gender double standard that still exists and that I had not thought seriously about because everyone knows me at the top,” Abramson said. She noted that when men exhibit the same type of behavior in the newsroom, they are often rewarded rather than scorned.

Another current issue in journalism is the threat against the legitimacy of the free press. Abramson expressed that the survival of quality news is deeply imperiled by “everything from business model challenges to a president who calls journalists the enemies of the people and says we do fake news.” Such attacks hurt the credibility of the press and diminish its watchdog purpose established by the First Amendment. In this way, “the political fabric of the country” is being jeopardized. Abramson also pointed out the crises facing local news (of which hundreds of outlets have closed down) and the struggle for legacy outlets such as The New York Times and The Washington Post to keep up with newer, tech savvy companies like Buzzfeed and Vice.

Merchants of Truth documents the evolution into digital news and the ways companies are adapting and accelerating their media strategies. One of the main pressures confronting this dynamic industry is the hunt for a successful business model. Abramson mentioned the recent phenomenon of billionaires claiming ownership of prominent news companies, opening up the prospect of change. Despite the search for stability, “The truth is, there isn’t one business model that’s going to save journalism,” Abramson said.

In today’s overabundance of information, “Most news organizations don’t enjoy a high level of trust.” According to Abramson, “Local papers are the most trusted” because they are familiar among their communities.

But as Abramson admits, distributing the truth is not always so simple a task. Since its publication last month, Merchants of Truth has faced a slew of criticism for citational and factual errors, including accusations of plagiarism. The book contains hundreds of references and footnotes, some of which were misconnected. “I feel terrible that by making some mistakes, I made myself and my book vulnerable to that attack,” Abramson said. She stated that when a writer is accused of inaccuracy, the best thing to do is revise the errors right away and be open about them.

“I see it as transparency with readers, which enhances the credibility. So why does a single error hurt the credibility? It’s hard to not have at least a couple of mistakes when you’re writing something that’s five-hundred pages long,” Abramson said.

The event closed with a Q&A followed by a book signing during which attendees were able to speak personally with Abramson. Informed about the ever-evolving news industry and inspired by Abramson’s experience in the field, the participants left the event with a deepened curiosity of today’s media world.