At a New York Women in Communications event last Friday, fired executive editor for The New York Times Jill Abramson sat down for a candid conversation about reinvention and the art of coming out on top. The talk was moderated by “Today” show weekend anchor Erica Hill.
Recalling the unfamiliar experience as someone catapulted into the center of a media frenzy following her ouster last spring, Abramson — who said she actually prefers being referred to as the fired executive editor — mentioned “winging it” as she dealt with the aftermath. She handled the press on her own and tried to focus on carving out her next chapter, even as a tabloid stationed itself outside her apartment building.
As for why she favors the word “fired” over “former” executive editor, Abramson explained:
From the moment I was fired… I was aware I was the first woman to hold what many people consider to be an elite job in journalism. It was important to me, from the first minute, to show what I was made of, to try to be an example.
If I’ve devoted my career to anything, it’s to telling the truth. So when I was called up given this news, I was handed a press release saying I had to sign it to leave. There is just no effing way. I have devoted my life to telling the truth and I’m being fired, and that’s what I’m going to say and what I want to say. I don’t want the absurdity like why on earth would I have decided to step down? Nutty. Spend more quality time with the dog?
Abramson added that she was a classic case of someone not negotiating upon her promotion: “I was just so happy to get the job.” She called how she dealt with the pay inequity among her peers “as one of my issues.”
And yet Abramson said she remained a supporter of the newspaper:
Despite the somewhat bloody ending, I love The New York Times. I think it’s an irreplaceable institution in Western civilization. If it somehow went away, it would never be built again. It’s a magical thing. I luxuriate in its coverage every day. I read it exclusively digitally.
In an exclusive interview with FishbowlNY following the event, Abramson discussed eradicating double standards, plans for the subscription-based startup she is launching with Steve Brill (in which one long-form story will be published a month) and whether she ever sees herself returning to the newsroom.
FishbowlNY: What kind of pressure did you face as a woman in such a high-profile role at the Times?
Jill Abramson: Pressure accompanies almost any job that has a public profile. But there’s a lot of pressure involved with just what you do in being a reporter and asking people uncomfortable questions. That doesn’t come naturally to most of us. The process of dealing with pressure is ‘steeling yourself’ to stay calm and carry on.
FishbowlNY: If a man was fired and described as being tough, that’s often praised whereas if a woman’s fired and she was tough, it’s not always looked upon the same way. Your thoughts?
Abramson: I think there is a double standard, of course there is.
FishbowlNY: What can we do about it?
Abramson: If you’re saying we as women and as women journalists, what we can do is not perpetuate the stereotypes and how we write about people. Take an extra minute to examine if I’m describing someone as tough or too hard-charging or abrupt or pushy. Actually, a friend of mine who’s a jewelry designer — after I was fired, she designed jewelry that said, ‘Pushy’ and it took off.
Would you say the same thing about a man or would you say he’s showing leadership qualities or is charismatic? That’s what we can do.
FishbowlNY: During the talk you mentioned so few women you managed at the Times actually negotiated their pay. How should people go about negotiating?
Jill Abramson: I think it’s not rocket science. In a very even fact-finding kind of way, ask, ‘What was my predecessor paid?’ There’s nothing wrong with asking that. And, by and large, you should expect to make a little bit more than your predecessor. But ask.
FishbowlNY: What’s your advice for professionals pursuing journalism now?
Abramson: My advice to them is if they have a passion for journalism to encourage them to enter the profession and [use] the basic tools of reporting. Being scrupulously factual, learning accuracy and follow up — and how to take the fruits of that reporting and storify the reporting because so many young journalists say I want to cover health care but it’s like, ‘What is the story?’
There has to be a narrative thread and some tension in a narrative and helping young professionals figure out how to do that was one of the most joyful parts of being an editor. I do miss that, though now I get to do it with my students at Harvard, which is cool.
FishbowlNY: Do you see anything different from your students and the field now compared to when you entered journalism?
Abramson: I don’t. When I was managing editor at the Times, I taught a writing seminar at Yale for five years in the spring and the students then didn’t seem that different. My class was small, so I’m getting the students that know they love to write and want to develop that. That passion for writing and learning the basics of journalism haven’t changed. I was inspired in the 70s by Woodward and Bernstein and there’s still such great investigative journalism being done. The students are now by inspired by Walt Bogdanich at the Times. It’s the same process of reading something amazing and saying, ‘Oh, I want to learn to do that!’
FishbowlNY: In terms of your new venture, are there any new updates you can provide?
Abramson: It will be launched before the end of the year. We haven’t 100 percent settled on a name yet. And we’re in the process of finalizing our deal with our investor. We’ll probably soon say something about who they are.
FishbowlNY: Do you miss the newsroom? Think you’ll ever go back to it?
Abramson: Shakes her head no and smiles
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.