NYT Executive Editor Jill Abramson: There’s a ‘Skeptical Relationship’ Between Reporters and PRs

Jill Abramson offers a few words about pitching stories to "The New York Times."

The New Yorker Festival has wrapped up for this year, bringing to a close the three-day festival that included talks with writer Edwidge Danticat, actress Toni Collette, and singer Paul Simon. We got our ticket to hear Jill Abramson speak with New Yorker writer Ken Auletta about being executive editor of The New York Times.

There were a lot of topics covered, but right at the end, there was a question, clearly from a publicist, about the newspaper’s interaction with public relations people.

“It’s a very skeptical relationship,” said Abramson, in a voice that is so unique it takes a moment to get used to. (Sample here.)

“We don’t want to use PR people as a gateway to the story,” she added.

She wasn’t totally against publicists. But Abramson has a well-defined spot in the news-gathering process that she thinks publicists should occupy.

“They can play a useful interlocutor,” she said at one point. “But when they get too aggressive and try to shape the story… it’s horribly counterproductive.”

In other words, it’s important for publicists who are working with the Times, and, honestly, with any reporter, to take cues. Yes, you can pitch. And you can propose things as the story moves along. And if you have a good relationship with a reporter, maybe you’ll be brought into the fold a little bit more as a story is fleshed out. But it’s important not to be so imposing that a reporter has it in their minds that they have to work with you in such a way that keeps you and your suggestions at arm’s length.

It’s also critical to remember that you’re not the only person pitching the Times. “We’re deluged with pitches,” she said at one point. Be sensitive to that. And make your pitch a meaningful one. If you know your pitch isn’t really NYT worthy, try to find another outlet you can work with more successfully. Your client will be happy with a story that’s pitched and published rather than one that’s pitched to the top tier pubs but rejected.

Or, based on the general consensus from reporters we know and have spoken to and personal experience, at least admit that your pitch is due to the insistence of a client. Everyone, even a stressed journalist on deadline, can sympathize with someone who’s doing something because their boss told them to.

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