National Press Club

Former NYT editor Abramson defends new book, explores media digital disruption

February 19, 2019 | By Kristina Groennings |

Former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson explored the digital disruption of the news media at a Feb. 14 National Press Club event.

Former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson explored the digital disruption of the news media at a Feb. 14 National Press Club event.

Photo/Image: Alan Kotok

Even before she had a chance to talk about the substance of her new book at a Feb. 14 National Press Club event, former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson addressed the controversy over alleged plagiarism and inaccuracies in the text.

At the beginning of the session, Abramson told the moderator, Club President Alison Fitzgerald Kodjak, that she would not have fired a reporter who committed similar transgressions but would have brought him or her in for a bracing conversation.

"There would have been a correction and an editor’s note and a very stiff talking to," Abramson said.

She said she had no intention to use "six passages of factual information" without attribution.

"I feel heartsick over this and I'm very sorry for it," Abramson said.

The book, “Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts,” explores the challenges faced by news organizations in the digital era.

Abramson said she was inspired by David Halberstam’s book, “The Powers That Be,” which covered a 1970s landscape “diametrically different from now” -- a “golden age” of media when news organizations were at the height of their influence and wealth.

She wanted to write a “narrative history of this amazing past decade of total digital disruption, where our world has gone from being legacy print dominated to everyone being digital first,” she said.

While the past decade of digital disruption in the news media has resulted in delivering innovative reporting to consumers at unprecedented pace and volume, it has simultaneously imperiled the economic viability and public perception of the organizations producing it, she said.

Abramson focused on four news organizations -- two upstart digital companies, BuzzFeed and Vice Media, and two legacy newspapers, The New York Times and The Washington Post.

Toward the end of her tenure at the Times, the publication was struggling financially and not hiring any new journalists, while the “new shiny digital operations, BuzzFeed and Vice, were hiring like crazy and growing like crazy,” Abramson said.

BuzzFeed had “larger audiences, more clicks per article than the Times was getting, and it looked like they had figured something out,” she said.

Buzzfeed’s reporting favored rapid, extensive disclosure of information with little to no editorial input, she said.

“They don’t think that editors sitting in a news room should be the ultimate authority; they believe much more sort of in their audience and their audience’s decisions about what’s the most important news of the day,” Abramson said. “They just want to publish a lot of news and let the clicks govern what rises and then what’s getting top billing on their site.”

Abramson recalled BuzzFeed’s posting of the entire Trump-Russia dossier. Though the FBI had briefed Trump and Obama about the document, “[o]ther news organizations including the Times had had the dossier since the late summer, and they didn’t publish because they couldn’t verify big parts of it,” Abramson said. She agreed with BuzzFeed’s decision, stating that “when two presidents are being briefed on something, it does meet a certain newsworthiness level.”

Abramson also praised Vice Media’s unconventional “immersive storytelling” approach.

“Vice’s approach in general isn’t to have the correspondents doing a standup as you see something happening in the background,” she said.

While innovative journalism has been a positive byproduct of digital disruption, Abramson asserts that news organizations have faced increasing economic instability and exposure to public perception of bias.

Furthermore, the free-to-consumer, ad-supported business model relied on by digital publications has proven to be unstable, she said.

“A frosty winter full of anxiety is filling all of the digital news companies,” Abramson said, noting that BuzzFeed and Vice recently each cut 250 jobs. “The platforms Facebook and Google that enabled their growth to begin with are now eating up a huge portion of digital advertising.”

Publications like the Times and Post that continue to derive significant revenue from print have fared better, according to Abramson. For instance, a full page ad in The New York Times costs more than $100,000.

Abramson said that other effects of digital disruption, including reporters’ obsession with getting the most clicks, have bolstered the administration’s portrayal of the media as biased.

“Why do you think there are so many Donald Trump stories? They get the most clicks. Lots of clicks is good for advertising and having a big audience,” she said. The result is “an appearance that the press is out to get Trump.”

There's an "incentive to write about Trump because you automatically have a great ranking,” feeding reporters’ obsession over number of clicks, Abramson said. “In my book I have an anecdote that a Post reporter actually talked to his psychologist numerous times over his neurosis over ChartBeat."