Far from flipping on cruise control, Jill Abramson went from steering The New York Times as its first female editor to navigating journalism’s digital depths in uncharted waters.
Once the captain of the Fourth Estate and now the entrepreneur willing to shell out $100,000 for a “whale” of a story, Abramson still speaks about journalism with the buoyancy of a newcomer. She’s hardly weathered after 17 years as a leader at The Times, and returned to a familiar harbor last fall, teaching narrative nonfiction at her alma mater Harvard University.
She’s spent her career shattering glass before reaching past the shards to hoist others up. After her firing from The Times last spring, Abramson now looks to refresh longform journalism with an online startup deal, while writing a book on journalism’s changing landscape and awaiting a personal first — becoming a grandmother.
A decade since her last visit to Pittsburgh, Abramson visited the University on Tuesday, May 12 to address a Women in Journalism class, instructed by senior lecturer and former Washington Post columnist Cynthia Skrzycki. Reclined on a green easy chair at the Wyndham Hotel beforehand, Abramson talked leadership, Rolling Stone’s retracted article and what happens when you’re a badass.
Natalie Daher: From what you’ve seen as a journalist and a teacher, can people learn to lead? Can you teach someone who’s been in the business different leadership tricks?
Jill Abramson: You can definitely learn leadership, and I would encourage people in college and generally your age to take their time learning it. To be a good leader, you do need some experience and to learn from experience. I don’t think you can snap your fingers and just pronounce yourself a leader, and read books about management and leadership techniques and emerge from them instantly as someone who can lead.
ND: You mentioned in an interview with Cosmopolitan last summer that it can be “dangerous to be a badass.” A lot of contemporary pop culture across the board has been portraying women as “badass” — this new brand of woman who is down for anything. What do you think are some limitations, if any, of this modern femininity?
JA: Some women who have been bold and outspoken on women’s issues and about feminism have faced a predictable backlash and have been attacked, sometimes very viciously. Some of the comments that I’ve seen in response to what I’m describing as “bold,” or you might describe as “badass,” commentary have just been overtly sexist and unpleasant and unfair. It’s fine to engage someone on the substance of ideas, but some of the commentary, it seems, will move very quickly into personal attack. You have to develop a tough hide if you’re going to be very bold.
Danielle Fox: What role do men play in narrowing the disparity and removing the double standard? How could women start this dialogue with men?
JA: Men as much as women should be invested in gender equality. It’s a mistake to view the discussion of issues involving gender equality as a discussion that women are having, and it’s vital to invite men into the conversation. I, in fact, just wrote a short piece about Emma Watson who is involved in this campaign, HeForShe. And she doesn’t hesitate in calling herself a feminist, but this particular campaign is geared toward trying to involve men in the fight for gender equality.
“You have to develop a tough hide if you’re going to be very bold.”
ND: You created a race and ethnicity beat at The Times. How can newspapers, and media in general, propel social change while still remaining unbiased?
JA: There has been very high-quality, unbiased coverage recently of police misconduct in cases where black people have been killed. And by shining a light and reporting accurately on these cases, journalism is fulfilling an important role in our society.
DF: You said on Friday [at the Georges Conference on College Journalism] that good journalism is “bringing the world to people as it is.” How would you describe the venture capital news sites’ — Medium, for instance — spin on that principle in comparison to traditional outlets?
JA: Medium is an interesting new platform that has a lot of interesting blogger voices. A number of people on social media have sent me interesting links to its content. It seems to be getting traction from what I can see. Tumblr was kind of, for a while, some years ago, the “it” blogging platform, and now it seems like Medium is. I’m not on Medium all the time, but I do pay some attention to some of the work that is published there.
“High-quality journalism coexists with entertainment even in the NYT.”
DF: Would you ever consider contributing to BuzzFeed?
JA: In reality, my plate is so full between teaching, and working on a book and trying to launch a startup. I’m not out pitching freelance pieces. But you know that I think some of the investigative pieces that BuzzFeed has published are very high quality, so there’s nothing that would stop me inherently. It’s not like I feel like I wouldn’t have my name in BuzzFeed, if that is sort of what you are asking me. High-quality journalism coexists with entertainment even in the NYT.
DF: How have students reacted to having you in the classroom?
JA: More than anything, I love the back and forth with them over their writing and trying to play a role in giving them helpful guidance … When a student who hasn’t been a student journalist gets the journalism bug, it’s just, like a thrill for me.
ND: You’ve said that college is a time to luxuriate in knowledge and a love of learning. How can we apply that philosophy to the decline of humanities and liberal arts?
JA: The decline in the humanities, especially the decline in English majors, distresses me. Developing a love for literature and books provides such a lifelong pleasure of the highest order. I understand, with the cost of tuition and students who go into deep debt in order to attend college, that the pressure is on to make sure you can find a job on the other side of getting a degree. Clear writing is a talent that you need in just about every profession, and the talent of being able to write a narrative has never been in more demand than it is right now. The liberal arts, and particularly English, are fantastic avenues to gain those skills.
“I have nothing against learning coding or developing some of the technical skills that are in such demand… But I wouldn’t trade Shakespeare for a particular program or coding technique.”
DF: Sometimes, as college students, we feel that we’re only pushed to pursue avenues that could really beef up our resumé, like learning to code. How do you feel about that pressure on students? If you were a student today, do you think you still would have participated in theater, or would you have just focused on journalism?
JA: I’m kind of an endlessly curious person. I’m not someone who, even today, would deny myself interesting experiences only because I’m honing a resumé. Having a variety of experiences and exposing yourself to different walks of life and different cultures actually makes you a better journalist in the end. I have nothing against learning coding or developing some of the technical skills that are in such demand as our society becomes completely digitally literate. I think you do need skills, and I applaud students who get them. But I wouldn’t trade Shakespeare for a particular program or coding technique.
I saw a speech that Marty Baron, the editor of the Washington Post, just gave out in California. He talks about how much he’s gained by working closely with the people working in technology at the Post company. It’s about not shedding tears of nostalgia for the decline of newspapers — and embracing the reality that it’s not like we’re “entering the digital age,” we’re right in it, and we should make the best of it.
DF: How do you think the Columbia Journalism Review’s report [about the retracted Rolling Stone article “A Rape on Campus”] and the resulting suit will affect journalism? How have you talked about the article with your students?
JA: My students reading the story could readily point out its shortcomings, way before the report came out. I thought the report was excellent. It confirmed the glaring weakness in the piece, which was basically built around one source and one source’s point of view. And that proved to be an insufficient, well, I should describe it stronger than insufficient. It just proved to be a very dangerous approach, lacking in thorough reporting and corroboration and fact-checking and editorial oversight.
ND: One of the main concerns about the story’s flaws is that it will discredit future accounts of sexual assault victims, which is immensely devastating to colleges across the country. What do you think the role of the media should be in preventing that?
JA: The bar for reporting these cases [should be] the same as reporting any investigative or enterprise story, which is that you have to thoroughly truth-test stories. Yes, on sensitive matters, you have to report with sensitivity. But when there are multiple people involved in a situation, you should try to get the point of view and comment and collect the facts from many points of view, not just one.
“It’s about not shedding tears of nostalgia for the decline of newspapers… It’s not like we’re ‘entering the digital age,’ we’re right in it, and we should make the best of it.”
ND: One of the other things you mentioned on Friday was that being authentic to yourself was one of the main keys to success. We also thought of the quote by David Carr, “We all walk this earth feeling like we are frauds,” which can be true in a lot of ways. How do you, as a teacher and editor, guide your reporters and students to achieve some semblance of their own authenticity — if that’s possible?
JA: I think so many of my students are only now just beginning to discover who they are, and to encourage and embrace that process is necessary. You are all still really young, and that’s wonderful [smiles]. Before you can be an authentic person, you have to grow into who that person is. In college, that is still something that is in development, and it’s thrilling as a teacher and someone who is now in her sixties, it’s very beautiful to see that happening in you.
DF: Do you ever feel like you are catching flags that show you when you’re being phony or aren’t paying enough respect to your authentic self?
JA: I don’t think I can. I’m conscious that my role as a teacher is to share the knowledge I’ve acquired from decades of experience in this profession, but to also have my own mind open to new ideas and new approaches. I always end up at the end of the year feeling that I’ve learned more from my students than they’ve learned from me. Especially now, I’m fascinated with how they absorb information and use it. It’s very different from when I was in college — you had to go to a newsstand to buy the physical paper. They’re connected 24/7.
“I think so many of my students are only now just beginning to discover who they are, and to encourage and embrace that process is necessary.”
ND: Speaking a bit to the future, what’s on the horizon for you besides writing a book and the startup and teaching classes?
JA: My plate is full, and I’m going to be a grandmother. My daughter [Cornelia Griggs] is pregnant with our first grandchild. She’s a surgeon in Boston, so I’m hoping that I can be of some help [laughs] to her at least for part of the week that I’m up at Harvard. I’m teaching [narrative nonfiction] again in the fall.
DF: Any idea for the first book you’ll buy your grandchild?
JA: You can’t miss with “Goodnight Moon.”
ND: Can we ask if there are any new tattoos in the sketches?
JA: No, I only seem to do them every decade, so nothing new till I’m 70. I cross my fingers I get there [laughs].