book excerpt

Difficult News

Lessons in journalism — and management — from editing the New York Times during the great digital disruption.

Photo: Brigitte Lacombe
Jill Abramson.
Photo: Brigitte Lacombe
Jill Abramson.
Photo: Brigitte Lacombe

Adapted from the forthcoming book Merchants of Truth, by Jill Abramson. Copyright © 2019 by Jill Abramson. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

When I took the reins of the New York Times in 2011, it was during a period of convulsive change and financial struggle, when the pace of the great digital disruption had intensified after the introduction of the iPhone and Facebook’s News Feed. The decade that followed, which culminated in Donald Trump’s election, transformed everything about how the news was reported and delivered. On their smartphones, people expected news to be instantaneous, even if the stories were erroneous. The old business model — advertising and circulation — was shattered by the new mantra that news had to be free. News was global, and could be manipulated by foreign powers, as the world learned in the 2016 election.

As executive editor of the Times, I had the best ringside seat to the digital transformation of what I still consider to be the one indispensable news organization in the world. People desperately need reliable information for democracy to survive, but there seemed to be no reliable business model to sustain it. Legacy newspapers like the Times and the Washington Post were struggling to become digital first and to find new revenue. That meant hammering holes in the wall that long separated news and business. Meanwhile, new players like BuzzFeed and Vice were building huge audiences on social platforms like Facebook and YouTube. With valuations in the billions, they looked to be the digital winners.

During my tenure, change was the only certainty. The conclusion of a much-discussed Innovation Report written by Arthur Gregg Sulzberger, the Times’ current publisher, was that the Times wasn’t changing fast enough. At almost the same moment in 2014, I was fired and lost my place as an eyewitness.

But the transformation I had lived through in my 17 years at the Times, so crucial to the survival of journalism, continued to be the focus of my post-Times career. So much was at stake, including the future of serious journalism, its duty to hold power accountable, and the future of facts themselves in a world where information — often bad information — instantly went viral online. It was a period even more gripping than the one another former Times journalist, David Halberstam, an idol of mine, wrote about in his monumental history of the press, The Powers That Be, which is always on my desk.

Like Halberstam, I planned a book project based on deep reporting on four media outlets. My less triumphal narrative would focus on the two most influential general-interest American newspapers, the Times and the Washington Post. I chose two new players, BuzzFeed and Vice — which offered more entertaining and shareable material than news — as the other two media companies I would investigate. I never wanted to write a memoir or a book solely focused on the Times, and Merchants of Truth is neither. It’s the story of how four companies face the daunting challenges of a digital world.

A small section of the book deals with my firing and how I lost my way in the turbulence of this era. But the battles I waged were emblematic of the broader changes that were transforming almost every part of journalism. Suddenly the Washington Post had been sold to Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. BuzzFeed and Vice started doing serious news, after building their brands on cute-puppy pictures, music, and beer. As a journalist, I knew this was a riveting story and would make a great book if I could get inside the four companies.

I wrote Merchants of Truth to help answer these urgent questions: Will public trust in the news media, which has plummeted, be restored? With a new election looming, how can the press better cover a president who calls reporters enemies of the people? What is the future of news? Mostly, what follows gives readers an inside view of what it was like to occupy the most prestigious job in journalism.

When New York Times executive editor Bill Keller announced in 2011 that he was stepping down, there were three contenders for his job: Dean Baquet, the Washington bureau chief; Marty Baron, the editor of the Boston Globe; and me.

I was the devil Arthur Sulzberger Jr. knew best. I’d spent eight years as managing editor — the second-in-command — and he trusted my judgment on journalism. But my ethical hackles were easily raised, which annoyed him, and some of his colleagues on the business side found me gruff. The seeds of a broader conflict had been planted.

In the digital realm, new, monetizable products required technologists, designers, and journalists to develop them all together. The traditional divide, the old wall between church (the news) and state (the business), did not precisely apply. But I was wary of having the business side more involved in areas that involved our news coverage. When they launched, Vice, BuzzFeed, and other digital players had no wall at all and subsisted on a new kind of advertising, called native or branded advertising, which was designed to resemble editorial content and thus blurred the lines even more.

As he weighed his options, Sulzberger invited me to lunch at Le Bernardin, where he had reserved a quiet table in the very back.

“Everyone knows there’s a good Jill and a bad Jill,” he began. “The big question for me is which one we’ll see if you become executive editor.” As he ticked off my faults, including not listening enough and treating colleagues in a high-handed manner, I copped to some of the complaints I did have a terrible habit of cutting off colleagues in mid-sentence and said I’d work hard to improve. I left the restaurant feeling queasy and downcast. It struck me that little of the conversation had focused on the “Good Jill,” and the award-winning journalism I had helped produce as an editor.

Back then, as now, I knew Dean Baquet was a superb editor. He clearly had a more jovial personality. Just as I would be the first woman to be executive editor, Baquet would be an exciting “first,” too, as the first black man appointed to the job.

As I was putting on my coat one morning, the phone rang. “I’d like you to be the next executive editor,” Sulzberger said. “It would be the honor of my life,” I responded. I felt light-headed. “Who are you thinking about for managing editor?” Sulzberger asked. Thinking I wouldn’t get the job, I had not put together my dream team of other editors.

“What about Dean?” he continued. “I love Dean,” I stammered. I would be seeing him over the weekend at a conference of black student journalists. We’d arranged to have dinner. “Why don’t you discuss it with him,” Sulzberger suggested, all but asking me to pick Baquet. I didn’t ask him about the salary. That was a critical mistake one made, I later learned, by many women as they climbed the ladder.

There was tremendous interest in the “first woman” angle, and I was more than happy to do interviews on the topic. Janet Robinson, the Times Company CEO, encouraged me to accept many of them. “This is good news for the Times, for a change,” she told me.

From left, Dean Baquet, Jill Abramson, and Bill Keller in 2011. Photo: Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times/Redux

Although I was completely unaware of it at the time, these were Robinson’s final days at the Times. By mid-December, she was gone, abruptly dismissed in a way that seemed needlessly hasty and mysterious. My mentor on the business side was gone.

Sulzberger surprised many by picking a new CEO from outside the company, Mark Thompson from the BBC, who came in with a new strategy for generating new digital revenue. Print advertising was falling off a cliff, so generating income from new digital products was urgent.

From the moment of his arrival, I spent nearly all my time in business-related meetings. There were early disputes about changing the reporting lines of some senior journalists so that they would jointly report to Thompson and me.

I knew that Thompson, as head of news and business at the BBC, was used to being in charge of everything from programming to news to business strategy. That blending was becoming common in the news business. I was told he said that there was no job at the Times he believed he couldn’t do, including mine. He clearly had the publisher’s ear. I desperately wanted the Times to survive and make money, but I did not believe that the business side should be involved in some areas I viewed as news. I never saw, either as managing or as executive editor, a bright line being crossed, but I was always on edge and felt that a trespass was looming. (A. G. Sulzberger, the publisher, and the Times’ spokesperson, Eileen Murphy, say my concern was unwarranted.)

I was determined to deepen the Times’ footprint in long investigative journalism, which was time-consuming, expensive, and was disappearing in many newsrooms. Some online readers didn’t want long articles, our new competitors’ success showed. (Our success with a beautifully designed, long digital narrative, “Snowfall,” showed that wasn’t entirely true.) But I was torn away from the journalism I cared about most by the business crisis. I struggled to stay on top of our investigation of Apple’s business practices in China and David Barboza’s exposé of the vast wealth secretly acquired by family members of China’s rulers. Digital technology allowed all publications global reach. The Times’ international coverage was one area that expanded despite business troubles. (Meanwhile, the Washington Post had clung to a local-news strategy and cut foreign and national reporting, a big mistake.)

Our China stories both won Pulitzers. Apple was upset with its portrayal, but the Chinese took retribution on the Times hours after the story on the princelings went up on the web. The Chinese ambassador had come to the Times before the story was published and threatened consequences. Although he had just sunk millions to launch a new Mandarin website that was generating good revenue, Sulzberger approved publication despite the prospect of losing a lucrative market. Hours after the story was published in English and Mandarin, China blocked the two websites the Times maintained in China and denied new visas to our correspondents.

Though he had been unflinching in publishing the story, months later, without my knowledge, Sulzberger, with input from Chinese officials, was drafting a letter from the Times all but apologizing for our original story, which the Chinese believed was an effort to interfere with internal politics. I found out when someone involved leaked me a draft because he was worried the Times was about to do something embarrassing. The draft I saw was objectionable and said we were sorry for “the perception” that the story created. I showed it to Baquet, who agreed it was a disaster. He encouraged me to confront the publisher, which was my inclination, too.

I told Sulzberger I needed to talk to him privately, and we repaired to a Starbucks. I reached into my bag and produced my copy of the letter. He seemed startled that I had it, and he kept saying, “I didn’t do anything wrong.” He tried to slip the letter into his folder, but I snatched it back. He agreed not to send it until it could be reworded once again, this time with input from Baquet and me. In the end, in my view, the letter was still objectionable. The word sorry remains in the final draft of the letter that I have. The Times says my account is inaccurate and that the letter was not an apology for the story.

I hated being closeted in business meetings where everyone sat silently following PowerPoint presentations that repeated the information contained in thick decks handed out. New digital products meant to generate revenue, like a cooking app, took up a lot of my time. I talked to Keller, who had managed to seem so outwardly steady, even during kidnappings of Times journalists. “I compartmentalized,” he told me. “You have to learn to do it.”

One thing I was adamant about was that the newsroom leadership was going to be more diverse. There were never enough female bylines on the front page though there were also fewer days when it was uniformly male, and compared with other publications, the Times had many more women who were star writers, but there were ridiculously few women in the most senior editing jobs. By the end of my first year, also for the first time in history, the masthead was half-female. I pushed to recruit and promote black, Asian, and Latino journalists, though there was not enough diversity at the Times or any other newsroom. I kept the pressure on.

Before I fully had command of the job, Politico published an in-depth and strident criticism of my personality and leadership style, asserting I was losing support among the troops. The disparaging quotes about me were pieced from anonymous sources. Politico’s story recounted that after I had returned from traveling, I made Baquet furious by telling him the news report on his watch had been boring. The story described Baquet slamming his hand into a wall and leaving the building. This part was true. Baquet, who has terrific editorial judgment, had reason to be angry at me.

Sulzberger assured me, “It’s not your fault, it’s just your turn.” He didn’t seem concerned, but a number of women journalists, many of whom I did not know personally, protested the article as a sexist and stereotypical smear.

I was not quite a year into my job when the publisher and the new CEO mandated sizable cuts in the news budget, the equivalent of 100 employees. Digital subscriptions had plateaued and print advertising had disappeared in a number of categories. Figuring out how to slice with the least pain occupied nearly all my time. Despite these deep cuts, Sulzberger had always protected the newsroom and never insisted on reductions that would noticeably harm the quality of what everyone still called “the paper.”

Thompson immediately made what I considered to be predatory moves. About six months after his arrival, the job of the design director part of the newsroom was restructured so that he would jointly report to me and Thompson. In the digital world, it was true that design involved product and technology, but still, I worried about the change. Even before Thompson’s arrival, the job of the new head of video had been restructured to report jointly to me and a top executive on the business side. I opposed this because video, an expanding part of our website that brought in high ad rates — and would compete with places like Vice and BuzzFeed — was news. Now its director was responsible for revenue, a blending that troubled me.

Thompson’s strategy involved developing what he called a fast-tracked “suite” of new paid products on top of the basic Times subscription for the main news report. Consultants from McKinsey helped pick out categories that promised the largest financial benefits. I scrambled to find the appropriate editors to work on these projects, often co-led with the business side.

Soon another issue strained our relationship, a big scandal at the BBC in which Thompson became embroiled, which I believed the Times had to cover aggressively, and we did. Thompson was ultimately cleared and emerged from a parliamentary investigation unscathed. If he took umbrage at the Times’ coverage of his BBC problems, he said nothing. He decided we would have a robust program of paid conferences headlined by Times journalists sponsored by big companies, sometimes live-streamed on our website. He took me aside and asked me not to stand in the way of native advertising, although I was already on record saying I thought it was awful because its storytelling methods imitated our journalism and could confuse readers. “I need this from you,” he told me, as if any objection from me would be seen as a mutiny. After all, BuzzFeed and Vice, which had been on the early edge of native advertising, were making a mint by operating like advertising agencies. Vice’s ad operation, slickly named Virtue, actually had more employees than Vice News.

I felt lonely and depressed at work. Everything was about saving or generating money. In order to save the jobs of reporters, I pressured some of the most senior editors, including several on the masthead, to take buyouts and retire. This meant losing some old supporters. I cut new reporting clusters I had created as managing editor, such as an environment pod whose work on global warming was vital.

2013 was a difficult year. We were beaten by the Washington Post and the Guardian on Edward Snowden’s purloined documents revealing widespread NSA eavesdropping. Also that year, a series of church-state conflicts were not resolved as I had hoped. The first occurred after I left the office for a couple of days when my son-in-law suddenly fell sick. Upon returning, I learned that Baquet had agreed to Thompson’s request to let the writers being hired to write native ads also write for the news report after a one-year cooling-off period. I believed our journalists shouldn’t include people who had also once written native ads, and wanted an absolute ban on native-ad writers’ work later appearing in the Times. After our morning news meeting, I told Baquet that I intended to overrule him. As I argued my point, probably too adamantly and self-righteously, he lashed out at me, saying, “You won’t even listen to people who disagree with you,” and left the room.

I felt very alone. I wanted to fight what I saw as the good fight with a managing editor with whom I could share everything, the way I had with Keller. I had not invested enough time in building a supportive team with the masthead, a group of whom had complained about me to Sulzberger. No one doubted my journalism chops or that I cared deeply about the reporters, but I was not handling these conflicts well.

The second clash took place at a lunch with the publisher. Around a table with a white linen tablecloth sat Andrew Rosenthal, the editorial-page editor; Denise Warren, the head of digital operations; Thompson; and me. At one point, Thompson told me that he expected the ideas for new, revenue-producing products to come from the newsroom. The last thing the Times needed, I believed, was to have its best journalists distracted from their work by endless meetings with product managers who reported to Thompson. That had become the essence of my job — working on a millennial news app, helping develop the cooking app — and I knew my having to spend time in unproductive meetings on tasks I mostly hated left the news report without some of the edge it had during my first year as executive editor.

“If that’s what you expect,” I snapped at Thompson across the table, “you have the wrong executive editor.” It was the kind of frank admission, uttered in an angry tone, that was never heard at the sedate publisher’s lunches we had every Wednesday in one of the small executive dining rooms. The truth had flown out of my mouth before I could edit either its substance or its tone. No one said anything for several minutes.

The third incident should never have happened. The new ad director had invited the marketing directors of several car companies to the Page One meeting during the New York Auto Show. This might have been allowed at Forbes, the digital native-ad factory she came from, but it was shocking at the Times, and I wanted to make that clear.

Not long afterward, Sulzberger hand-delivered a very negative written evaluation. In shockingly personal terms, the letter described my moodiness and statements from my closest colleagues that I was a difficult manager. It said nothing about the substance or quality of my work. If I had to boil it down to one sentence, it would be “People think you’re a bitch.”

“Arthur,” I asked, “do you want someone else in the job?”

“No,” he responded, “but I want you to take these issues seriously.”

Some of his criticisms were valid, such as the fact that I traveled a lot. Some criticisms I viewed as sexist and focused heavily on my personality. I didn’t know it then, but a group of masthead editors had gone to the publisher to complain about my management style.

Then came a dispute over my pay. I had asked one of the masthead editors to study the issue of pay equity in the newsroom. When she was finished, she walked into my office, plunked a spreadsheet on my desk, and said, “You are exhibit A.” The numbers showed that during my eight years as managing editor, my salary lagged behind one of the male masthead editors I outranked. My current salary was what Keller’s starting salary had been in 2003, a full decade earlier. The Times later disputed that I was underpaid and said my full package, reflecting changes the company made in awarding stock and bonuses, exceeded my predecessors’.

So, with the evaluation letter and compensation numbers in hand, I consulted a famous gender-discrimination law firm. A partner thought both issues — the gendered criticisms and the unequal compensation — looked serious, but ultimately I had no desire to end my career in litigation against the institution I loved.

Then came the famous “Innovation Report.” For me, it was an epic defeat. I had been so determined and worked so hard to be the transitional editor who would succeed in making the newsroom digital-first without causing a cultural meltdown or letting the best traditions die, like protecting the news from being colored by the crass commercialism I saw on news sites across the internet. While BuzzFeed and Vice were doing more serious journalism, even investigative reporting, news for them was a loss leader. Fun content, ties to commercial sponsors, and native ads were what kept the lights on. The Post was already using metric charts that influenced editors to choose stories according to which ones got the most clicks. The Innovation Report was also a call to arms for something Thompson wanted desperately: more collaboration between the news and business sides. The wall was getting in our way, the report concluded.

I had picked A. G. Sulzberger to lead the group because I admired his values and his impressive work as a reporter and editor. Originally, the group was supposed to think up new digital products, but later I approved his request to change course, not realizing the innovation task force would be opening a Pandora’s box. The committee dissected every part of the newsroom in a comprehensive autopsy of how we stacked up against new, digital rivals. The members of the Innovation Committee quoted BuzzFeed’s founder, Jonah Peretti, and reported that another digital publication, the Huffington Post, which lived by aggregating Times stories, had more traffic than the Times.

The report said digitally focused talent were leaving their jobs because Times journalists looked down on people working on the web as service personnel, not co-creators. The report said nothing about what I considered my biggest accomplishment: uniting the web and main newsrooms in 2012.

Digital competitors like Vice and BuzzFeed had beaten us in an area called audience development (or engagement) by distributing and promoting their stories on big social platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat. More and more people were reading news or watching videos on their smartphones, often in their social news feeds. The legacy brands were losing advertising and traffic to them. Social-media platforms, not individual brands, were suddenly the dominant force in publishing news, a transformation that had changed everything.

The publisher and Thompson were overjoyed with the Innovation Report. I issued a somewhat disingenuous memo to the newsroom embracing its findings. It might have been the tough love the newsroom needed to become more digitally focused, but it did not recognize the progress I believed we had made.

I attended a farewell party for the Guardian’s Janine Gibson, who had won a promotion and been called back to London. She was known for her digital smarts and for vastly expanding the Guardian’s U.S. audience. I pulled her aside and asked if she’d be interested in the Times. She told me she was being moved back to be a contender for the top editing job, and I concluded that to interest her, my offer would have to be big.

The idea of having a true partner, another woman who had made brave journalism decisions and was forging her way into the future, appealed to me immensely. The next day I had my weekly lunch with Sulzberger and Thompson. They pressed me on how I intended to implement the Innovation Report. I didn’t have a strong digital partner, and knowing they would quickly offer to find someone, I mentioned Gibson. Thompson, who knew her from Britain, jumped at the idea.

There was, in fact, a senior masthead position open, managing editor for administration. I knew Baquet liked the authority he had as the sole managing editor and would certainly not welcome someone from the outside coming in with that title. What I didn’t know was that he’d clashed with Gibson during the editing of the Snowden material (which the Times had eventually published). I consulted Thompson for advice on how to handle Baquet.

“Tell him you both need a new digital leader,” he said, “and don’t tell him you want Gibson straight off. Tell him you are considering several people.”

More or less, I followed Thompson’s script, knowing that it was wrong to mislead Baquet, but also wanting to avoid another confrontation. He took the news coolly but did not resist.

I assumed Thompson, who has denied encouraging me to obfuscate, was briefing Sulzberger. I pressed ahead with Gibson and put together a plan to offer her a second managing-editor title. I consulted Thompson throughout and had him call Gibson. I invited her to meet Sulzberger and have lunch with Baquet. I still left Baquet with the impression that I was looking at different people, and he grew justifiably furious when he learned that I had more or less offered her the job. A few hours later, he came into my office and told me off. He said I wasn’t treating him like my managing editor and had not been transparent with him. This was true. I should have been straight with Baquet, with whom I had once been close. The angry words in my office were the last I saw of him. He stopped coming to the office and claimed he had jury duty. I left messages for him and heard nothing back.

I knew I had been clumsy. I went to see Sulzberger and asked him to take Baquet to dinner to assure him that he would probably one day get my job. I didn’t explain that I had misled Baquet about Gibson, assuming, wrongly, that he knew about the preliminaries. I asked Sulzberger to call me after his Wednesday-night dinner.

When he called, his voice was ice cold. He said that it had been a “very tough” conversation. He hung up quickly, providing no details. Later, someone told me Baquet had presented him with an “It’s either her or me” ultimatum. The next morning, in his office, Sulzberger said, “I’ve decided to make a change. Dean will be executive editor.” Then he handed me a press release announcing that I had decided to leave the Times. I asked why I was being fired. “Because of the way you handled the Janine Gibson matter,” he said. Then I looked him straight in the eye and said, “Arthur, I’ve devoted my entire career to telling the truth, and I won’t agree to this press release. I’m going to say I’ve been fired.”

“We are doing this for you,” he said.

“Arthur, I think people are going to be very upset by this.”

“No, I don’t think so,” he said. “I want to settle this soon. You’ll know the terms over the weekend.” I rode the elevator down to the lobby and left the building, calm but probably in shock.

An announcement was set for Wednesday in the newsroom. I had offered to be there because I wanted to thank all the journalists who had driven themselves so hard to produce magnificent work and made me look so good. On Tuesday night, Sulzberger called and said, “Don’t bother to come in tomorrow.”

Usually on Thursdays I worked out with a trainer, Gene Schafer, at a gym near my apartment. When I arrived that Thursday, he was wearing boxing gloves and held out a pair of red ones for me. “You need these today,” he said, and smacking gloves was therapeutic. Before we were done, I asked him to take a picture of us so I could show my kids that I was okay. My daughter, who appointed herself my PR agent, posted the photo on Instagram with the caption “Mom’s badass new hobby” and added the hashtag #pushy. Two hours later, she called and said, “My Instagram is going viral.” On Friday, there I was, boxing gloves and all, on the cover of the New York Post.

Though he fired me, I believe that, by protecting his newsroom from drastic cuts and never sacrificing the quality of the Times, Sulzberger Jr. saved the one truly indispensable news organization, making him the unlikely hero of my book. When he turned over the publisher’s title to his son, A.G., and celebrated the handover with Champagne at the Modern, the future looked a lot more secure.

A few years after I left, Sulzberger and I toured the Post’s brand-new newsroom together after a celebration of the Pulitzers’ 100th anniversary. Reporters gaped. But we were bound together by a lot of fearless journalism we had both helped publish. In the end, this was far more important than what drove us apart.

The Times, so financially challenged when I was there, is now flourishing and fully digital-first. Its paid subscribers have reached over 4 million, in large part because of the so-called Trump bump. While he calls journalists enemies of the people, President Trump has been financial gold for many news organizations, including the Times. And with Bezos pumping in extra resources, the Washington Post is back on top, with a more user-friendly website and a suite of new digital products. It, too, has a native-ad operation.

The digital natives, meanwhile, are struggling. Facebook and Google are eating up the lion’s share of digital advertising. Yet Facebook, stained by privacy violations and so-called fake news on its platform, is losing customers. Venture capitalists are cutting back their investment in digital start-ups. BuzzFeed and Vice both significantly missed their financial targets in 2017. Of course, as I learned, the picture can change in an instant.

*This article appears in the January 21, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

My Tumultuous Time at the New York Times