Jill Abramson and the search for journalism’s future

Jill Abramson on February 24, 2015 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Marla Aufmuth/Getty Images)

Forty years ago, David Halberstam wrote The Powers That Be, a snapshot of imperial journalism at its height. The book followed the paths of four news companies—The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, CBS News, and Time Inc.—charting their rise and looking into what at the time seemed a limitless future.

To say journalism feels different in 2019 would be a hilarious understatement. Of the four companies charted by Halberstam, only one, the Post, is anything like what it was, and that’s only because it was rescued by Jeff Bezos. All of the others have been seriously hobbled.

Jill Abramson, in Merchants of Truth, her book about the news business, out February 5 from Simon & Schuster, has taken Halberstam as an inspiration, similarly structuring hers around four iconic news outlets — Vice, BuzzFeed, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. But instead of sketching a portrait of an industry on the rise, hers is a look at a business in existential crisis.

RELATED: The perils of publishing without a fact-checking net

The book has already been hit with a swarm of commentary and pushback, mostly on social media, and mostly vindicating Abramson’s view, outlined in the book, about how social media has changed the nature of journalism, and not always for the better. The fact that the book has given her an opportunity to have the last word on the people who fired her as executive editor of the Times has made it a source of irresistible media-industry gossip.

Abramson spoke with Kyle Pope, CJR editor and publisher, by phone in New York. Her comments, which you can also hear on The Kicker, our podcast, have been edited for length and clarity.

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KP: Welcome, Jill. The book is titled “Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts.” So are the facts winning or not?

JA:  I think the facts will always win. Everything has become polarized and politicized and it presents journalism with a big dilemma. None of us are comfortable being advocates. You and I both know the founders thought that journalists were a crucial bulwark against excessive government power and that the Fourth Estate was incredibly important and had to function successfully. We can’t just be passive bystander’s because if we do, the core of the First Amendment could be weakened terribly, and that can’t happen on our watch.

KP: You write a lot in this book about the culture and the kind of mechanisms for high levels of journalism, especially at the Post and the Times. Let’s talk about BuzzFeed, especially about this recent story of theirs having to do with whether Trump instructed his lawyer to lie about a Trump Tower in Moscow. Do you think that’s an example of how a true embrace of rigor and fact checking still isn’t quite there for them?

JA: I think it’s premature to come to a judgment on their story. I’ve talked and interviewed some of the journalists who were involved in the Michael Cohen/Trump story.

There’s somewhat of a rush to make this a case study in bad journalistic practice and I’m not not sure it is. I’m obviously not sure either that the story is solid. BuzzFeed was transparent that it had two sources involved in the investigation of Trump Tower Moscow. You know they had documents described to them. Obviously you know the special counsel poured ice water on it — not only cold water — which is practically unprecedented.

I think what the story is is an example of how news goes viral.  

KP: Now we’re all living in Jonah Peretti’s world now.

JA: Yeah, and that can be cautionary. You know certainly if something is false and goes viral, but you know it can be great, too, because it can bring a huge audience to a particular story that should get more attention.

KP: But there is a predictable cycle to this, which is somebody writes a potentially explosive story. A certain group of sort of pundits jumps on it and says this is huge. Then there’s this predictable backlash. The pendulum swings all the way to the other side. It just doesn’t seem like a healthy way to digest and talk about news.

JA: No it isn’t. You know when I started my career as an investigative reporter at The Wall Street Journal in the relative stone age, our culture and our rhythms were completely governed by the printing press.

KP: I sort of wonder what what we did with all of our time.

JA: Well I know what I did. I was out reporting and hunting for documents and meeting face to face with nervous sources and attending hearings on issues. That to me is that the biggest worry. The atrophying of local journalism and reporting and the disappearance of so many local newspapers means that’s the news that’s closest to people and knows the people, the news organizations that know the people in the community the best, are gone. I don’t think that that’s incidental to why the news media by and large missed the huge anger bubbling up in the middle of the country.

KP: So let’s talk about how the news cycle works. I was fascinated to see that play out in response to this book. Were you surprised?

JA: I wasn’t surprised.

KP: What happened, for everybody who hasn’t been following this closely, was that Howard Kurtz at Fox wrote a piece that I think mischaracterized your take on the Times, and other people focused on factual errors in the galleys, which you’ve corrected, yes?

JA: Yes.

KP: So you weren’t surprised either of those things happened before the book was even released?

JA: I wasn’t but I don’t really want to talk in detail about why. I mean I was well aware that some of the people I wrote about were angry about the book and had contested some of the facts in the book. I wasn’t surprised. Everything happens instantly. I was surprised that the galley had been out there you know for way over a month that it took that long.

I want to say seriously that it pains me that there were any mistakes. In a 500-page book I fear it’s inevitable that there are going to be some and the most important thing you can do as a good journalist is correct them ASAP.

KP: You hired a fact checker for the book?

JA: I did.

KP: How much fact checking did the publisher do, or did they leave that all to your person?

JA: Publishers, I think by and large, don’t fact check anymore. They copy edit.

KP: The stuff that I found most interesting about the Times was the sort of continuing, ongoing tension around the business side’s effort to find other sources of revenue. They sort of saw  news as a potential area to exploit.

JA: Well I think exploit is too strong a word but The New York Times is a for-profit company. I had grown up in a newspaper culture where there was an extremely bright line between the newsroom and the business side. What I experienced was that the business leaders of the Times wanted less of a separation and believed that the journalists in the newsroom had to be heavily involved. I did not want the journalists in the newsroom to be preoccupied with revenue-producing proposals on how to save the Times. I mean no one wanted to save the Times more than me. It’s an irreplaceable institution in America. But it worried me.

KP: You write about how near the end of his tenure Bill Keller (the former executive editor) looked aged and exhausted and sort of like, ‘Enough.” I don’t think those of us on the outside appreciated what was going on inside.

JA: Well that’s probably true. I had given speeches saying how terrible I thought brand advertising and native advertising were because I thought it could sow confusion in readers’ minds. I was told by the new CEO of the Times that the Times just absolutely needed to do native advertising and set up a native advertising studio and that I couldn’t stand in the way.

KP: Do you think it’s gone too far?

JA: Well I certainly don’t know of any breach where the Times ran a native ad that did confuse large numbers of readers. But I’m not sure that readers understand. The other day there was a very big native ad that ran almost all the way  across the homepage and in small letters it says ‘paid post.’ But I’m not sure readers know what a paid post is.

KP: I heard you talk recently at a kickoff breakfast for your book. Somebody asked you whether you were bitter. You said that chapter’s behind you.

JA:  How can you not forgive people like Dean Baquet who has turned out to be a great executive editor and a steady guide of the Times through this period of constant White House attacks? Or Arthur Sulzberger Jr., who was publisher when I was executive editor and was the man who fired me? But you know he is I think one of the great heroes of journalism because in the worst of times, sure we had some job reductions in the newsroom, but not of the severity of our competitors.

KP: I hear what you’re saying, although reading the book I thought the portrayal of Sulzberger was pretty unflattering. That’s my read.

JA: OK. I think it’s mixed, but the portrait of many key characters in the book is mixed.

I’m not bitter. I was very sad after I was fired. But I’ve built a new career for myself which is centered around journalism still.

KP: I thought the book was brave in the sense of your willingness to call it as you saw it. I’m sure everybody’s reading this differently. I’m sure you have friends at the Times who thought you were too soft and others who thought you were too hard. People read into it what they will.

JA: That is true.

KP: I wish it had a cleaner ending.

JA: Could you write one? I can’t see it in terms of what the future holds.

KP: I couldn’t.

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Kyle Pope is the editor in chief and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review.