Story by 2014 Fellow Suzanne Cosgrove | Photos by Ellie Van Houtte | Video by Macrina Newhouse
In a wide-ranging interview Saturday, former executive editor of The New York Times Jill Abramson talked about her upcoming startup project and said she does not spend much time dwelling on the reason she was fired from The New York Times.
At a breakfast with about 200 JAWS members and the annual Conference and Mentoring Project (CAMP) in La Quinta, California, Abramson said that before she was fired by Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., she was in discussions with CEO Mark Thompson and Sulzberger about her salary, which in 2011 was less than her predecessor’s salary in 2004.
Named executive editor of the Times in September 2011, Abramson was the first woman to assume that role in the paper’s history. She left on May 14 of this year. She was managing editor of The New York Times, from August 2003 until her promotion to executive editor. Looking back, Abramson said she wished she’d negotiated her salary at the front end.
Abramson noted that after she was fired from the Times, the hashtag #pushy became popular and advised young women in the audience not to get “tangled up in your head, asking ‘am I too pushy’ and ‘should I be sweeter.’”
“I somehow emerged from this being proud of who I am,” Abramson said. “ I am a direct person who says what I think,” Abramson told incoming JAWS President Linda Kramer Jenning. “I try not to be too blunt, but if you’re going to have a voice inside your head all the time, second-guessing your style, you’re going to drive yourself crazy,” she said to audience applause.
Asked about the current lack of women in media management, Abramson stressed women in those positions do make a difference in coverage. As for the all-male masthead at the Washington Post, she commented that the late Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham and writer Meg Greenfield “are spinning in their graves.”
Amid the stress on “legacy” media to keep afloat and her departure from the Times, Abramson said she is now focused on teaching at Harvard University and launching a nonfiction storytelling startup, done in partnership with online legal magazine American Lawyer founder Steven Brill. The unnamed project will publish “one perfect, great whale of a tale per month,” in an online subscription model for around $2.99 a month. Writers will get advances of about $100,000 to start working on investigations and with a focus on writing.
“I’m desperately worried about what I see a diminution of the quality of writing,” as writers are pressured to do more, faster, Abramson said. Even at The New York Times, which she said she still considers “the gold standard” of writing, she said she sometimes saw what she called “robo writing.”
Abramson also criticized a “lack of proportionality” of coverage, and said the “endless yack-a-thon” that has become coverage of Ebola in the U.S. is an example of the loss of that kind of reporting. “Very few places can afford to have lots of boots on the ground,” she noted, and the news media end “recycling” stories.
Despite the endless news cycle, she said she’s proud of the work New York Times’ reporters did under her tenure, including David Barboza’s stories on corruption in China despite intense pressure from the Chinese government not to publish. The New York Times’ website was shut down in China, and continues to be inaccessible.
“I don’t want the noisiness of my departure to overshadow” the work, she told JAWS incoming president Linda Kramer Jenning.
Watch the video by Macrina Newhouse below to hear more of Abramson’s comments at CAMP 2014.
Another video by Macrina Newhouse featuring Jill Abramson at CAMP 2013.