Jill Abramson on the impact of social media, gender and the “nambi-pambiness” of “equal opportunity quotation”

Former Executive Editor of The New York Times Jill Abramson has thoughtfully tackled major issues in contemporary journalism and reflected on her controversial tenure at The Times in a keynote address to the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) in Montreal overnight. University of Wollongong journalism academic Shawn Burns reports from the conference for the World Editors Forum.

by WAN-IFRA Staff | August 7, 2014

Ms Abramson, who is set to join Harvard University as a visiting lecturer in narrative non-fiction journalism, was asked to address the 400-strong gathering on the topic ‘Journalism in a 24/7, mobile, Twitter world’.

“Her three year tenure began and ended in headlines,” AEJMC President Prof. Paula Poindexter told the audience as she introduced Abramson to the stage.

In September 2011, Ms Abramson grabbed headlines for all the right reasons; she was the first woman in the paper’s history to hold the top editorial position. Then, shrouded in claims of gender pay inequalityThe Times’ publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. announced in May that she had been fired because of “… an issue with management in the newsroom.”

After almost three years at the editorial helm of The Times, and with eight Pulitzer prizes to the paper’s name under her leadership, including one for the much-vaunted multimedia feature Snowfall, Ms Abramson was abruptly replaced by then Managing Editor Dean Baquet earlier this year. Baquet became the paper’s first African American editor.

As one of her first public speaking engagements since her dismissal, Ms Abramson’s AEJMC speech covered much terrain. Here’s my curation of the most quotable quotes from her keynote address in Montreal.

1. On NYT Now (her last big project as Executive Editor at The Times)

  • “It’s something that I think really represents successful strategy for how to compete in the fire hose of a media environment that we all live in now.”
  • “Basically, what NYT Now is is a custom-designed global news product.”
  • “The strategy behind NYT Now was to recognise that keeping up with the news is exhausting and daunting. And that the best way to do it isn’t the endless Facebook or Twitter feeds, it’s a single updated news package designed for mobile and tailored to readers who want the quick summarised basics of the The New York Times news reported in a smart but a somewhat chattier, friendlier voice.”
  • “NYT Now is a journalistic success story. It has been downloaded by tens of thousands of readers. It’s unsure that, priced at $8 a month, it’s a business success … but I think it’s off to a promising start.”
  • “It offers the authority of The Times without dumbing down a news report that’s designed for mobile-first.”
  • “I think that that’s the model that a traditional news company should adopt and adapt to the 24/7 news cycle and to current digital realities. The idea is to reach readers where they are and that’s increasingly, obviously, on their smart phones. But it’s not to throw the values of quality reporting, smart analysis, intelligent editing and elegant presentation out the window.”

2. On Facebook, Twitter & the role of social media

  • “Social media has changed the way the news spreads, but what matters most is still the substance and authority of the news being reported, not how it is being amplified… The stories have to be genuinely worthy of attracting big readership.”
  • “In many ways, Facebook and Twitter have strengthened the news and have made the fierce urgency of the now more compelling than ever.”
  • “In the digital present, everyone can be a publisher. That’s a democratising force in journalism, but for sure this ability carries risk too.”
  • “The manic competition to file a story can breed careless, error-prone reporting, or not give correspondents or photojournalists the time they need to really think through their story or enough time to prove to their readers a deeply reported and well presented story.”

3. On the news consumers formerly known as ‘readers’

  • “Readers are often smarter than we given them credit for. I think they honour accuracy more than instant gratification. They can handle long stories if they are well reported and offer something that is genuinely unique.”

4. On finding an audience

  • “Even in the 24/7, 140 character world of journalism my belief in a well-told, deeply reported story has never waivered. A great story always finds its audience.”

5. On journalistic bias

  • “I think the idea of unbiased reporting being just a kind of half and half, this side says one thing, the other side says something else, is not really useful journalism.”
  • “That doesn’t mean I believe in biased reporting. What I believe in is deep reporting, and then if a reporter really digs, there often is what I call weight of evidence in stories that are about contentious subjects. And I think that if the reporting is there it’s not like you put blinders on and don’t report that there’s an other side of an argument, but I think it’s sort of nambi-pambiness to sort of just have equal opportunity quotes on all sides.”
  • “I worry that there are fewer actual professional reporters out there digging and witnessing, which is what I think strong journalism relies on, in a world that comes full of first-person blogging and people writing about themselves that maybe the value of that kind of reporting isn’t prized as much as it should be.”

6. On international coverage 

  • “For most of our history, war has been witnessed in the rear view mirror.”
  • Now “… journalists begin writing about what they are seeing on Twitter at the instant they witness events. Scenes of disaster and chaos are everywhere. This can inform, but it can also plainly just shock and overwhelm.”

7. On political coverage

  • “In the US, we’re approaching the 2016 election, and political coverage is now dominated by what I call ‘scooplets’ – saucy bits of gossip that highlight campaign conflicts or gaffs without the substance of issues or stories that really reflect how politics affects real people’s lives.
  • “The campaign fire hose is always on. Twitter is how political news is started and amplified.”
  • “It’s rare to find history or context in political stories, or any real understanding of how the candidates really exist as people.”
  •  “I worry that reporters either don’t get the access to the candidates or they just don’t have the reporting time to tell the kinds of stories that people want.”
  • “I prefer the political reporters to listen and report what the candidates are actually talking about rather than being so determined to break a little scooplet that may drive the media conversation of the day only to be forgotten the next.”

8. On the Snowfall effect

  • “The heart of the matter is really creating with multimedia what I call an organic meeting experience.”
  • “It’s most powerful if in the presentation it’s [multimedia] included to deepen or broaden the actual storytelling. I think it can become distracting and somewhat pointless if all it does is echo the words in some way.”
  • “The most important thing is for the journalists working on these projects, because they’re two members – they have to be, is for the journalists who have specialties in different areas of the multimedia work on the stories to really think through how is their specialty going to deepen the storytelling and be part of an organic whole. So that the story is actually a story not just a jerry-rigged multimedia extravaganza.”

9. On the elephant in the room: 

50 years after the Civil Rights Act, 40 years after 2nd wave feminism, why is it so hard for minorities and women to get and keep, let alone keep, top jobs in news organisations 

  • “It is true that when you look at the top of journalism it is kinda of a wasteland when it comes to diversity.”
  • “Right now on TV, which for many Americans is still the most visible news medium, there aren’t any women anchors right now.”

Picture: Jill Abramson following her AEJMC keynote. Credit: Beth Haller

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