The Art of Reinvention: A Q&A with Jill Abramson

Jill Abramson and NBC News’ "Weekend Today" anchor Erica Hill

Jill Abramson and NBC News’ “Weekend Today” anchor Erica Hill

Last Friday, New York Women in Communications hosted a one-on-one interview with Jill Abramson conducted by NBC News’ “Weekend Today” anchor Erica Hill.

The interview covered Abramson’s departure from the New York Times, as well as how she reinvented herself after her very-public dismissal. Here are her responses from the interview.

Why do you think there was such an interest after you were fired from the New York Times?

The ingredients now for a big new story is that it just has to have a controversy of some kind. When I was editor of the New York Times, controversy was often a feature of so much of what we covered. My getting fired had that ingredient of controversy. It also added a lot of pizzazz that I was a woman and the first woman to have this job.

You say that you’d rather be known as the fired executive editor of the the New York Times vs. the former executive editor of the New York Times. Why?

It was important for me to show what I was made of and to be an example. Most people do get fired from a job, and I wanted to not make it something you can’t talk about.

There does come a stigma with being fired — that somehow you did something wrong, whether you actually did.

I felt strongly that I hadn’t done anything wrong. If I have devoted my career to anything, it is to telling the truth. When I was called up to be given this news, I was handed a press release that said I had decided to leave. I said that there is just no effing way. I devoted my life to telling the truth. I am being fired and that’s what I am going to say.

Do you feel like you’re reinventing yourself or are you finding yourself?

My instinct is more that I am finding myself, mainly because I have worked in an office since I graduated from Harvard since 1976. I love not going into an office! The one thing I worried about is that I would somehow be lonely and miss being in the middle of things in the newsroom — and, of course, there are aspects of the work that I miss. One thing I don’t miss is going into an office and ­­being handed a schedule everyday where I have different meetings in 15-minute segments.

It has been the best to be in charge of myself. I love that. If I want to sit and read something very closely for more than an hour, then I can do that now. Despite the bloody ending, I love the New York Times. I think it’s an irreplaceable institution in Western civilization. If it somehow went away, it could never be built again. I luxuriate in its coverage every day and read it exclusively digitally.

Why do you read the New York Times digitally?

When I was managing editor, I started reading it online. To survive, the New York Times has to have a new audience, and the new audience is reading it exclusively online. I thought that’s how I should absorb the news too. Except for that, I read the New York Times on the app.

When you look at the way you did things when you were in it for so many years, and if you could change some of those things and have a little more time, what would you do?

My first observation is that I am a much better manager of myself than I was of lots of other people. I don’t think managing people was my strength. I can be impatient and demanding. Demanding is OK, but combined with being impatient — not a great combo.

Is there a way to not only have equal pay but make it be a fair compensation for the work that’s being produced? Are those the same things or different?

They are similar. Equality and fairness are close cousins no matter what arena we’re talking about. In my own personal case, I was just so happy to get the [New York Times] job that I never negotiated my pay.

Going back to the year 2000, there were maybe five women who came to talk to me about their salaries or to ask for a raise.

Looking back at the research you have done and thinking about how you have dealt with it in the past, any advice on how to walk in and ask for what you deserve?

Don’t wait until you have a grievance to bring up, but it should be done calmly. It is part of the deal. It is best to bring it up as a matter of fact and not just because you think you heard you aren’t being treated fairly or equally. If it does become a grievance and an emotional thing, suffering in silence is not my advice.

We live in a culture of immediacy where we need a constant update. How much do you think that influences the way stories are covered at this point, and how this information is delivered to people?

It has a huge influence on the media. Anything that adds gasoline to controversy becomes an update. There is this whole trend of headlines and stories that are designed to just be clickbait. They usually have an element of sex, because that is the easiest clickbait. It infects the rest of the media landscape.

Do you think we are less well-informed because we have this immediate access to all these different information points, whether they are accurate or not?

Yes, I do. We are bombarded with so much information, but maybe not so much gaining knowledge. That worries me. My advice to be more knowledgeable is to tear yourself away from the Internet and read some books. I think it helps.

Any advice on taking back your life and achieving that “new you” that you’re hoping to create?

So much of it depends on your finances. The luxury of thinking about reinvention is just not there for most women. We know that women are the pillars and breadwinners in our society now. I would encourage anyone with a passion to pursue a dream, but it’s tough out there, especially if you’re looking for investors. I think it’s easier for men doing a startup to raise money, whether it’s in Silicon Valley or elsewhere. You have to make sure you have the resources to tough it out.

Any story you didn’t get to tell as a journalist that you still want to tell?

Perhaps I am going to be covering the story of a woman getting elected president finally.

Any other advice on reinvention?

The one thing about being fired is that the people who got me through it are my sister, my girlfriends, and my daughter. Don’t ever take your close women friends for granted. Those relationships are the best.

After Hill spoke with Abramson, the audience asked a few questions.

Can you walk us though the media aftermath of getting fired and how you dealt with the situation?

I am going to start by confessing something that’s honest, but not necessarily admirable.

I was called up to the publisher’s office, and he told me I was fired. After I left the building, I got onto the street and said to myself, “What are you feeling?” I realized that I felt relieved. I felt this overwhelming sense of relief. No one was home, so I went for a really long walk in Central Park. I think my sister was traveling. My brother-in-law was home, so I spent a nice afternoon with him.

It wasn’t until the next morning that I realized that I probably need to talk to a lawyer about a separation with a company that I worked with for a long time.

I called an old friend of mine that is a very prominent lawyer and senior executive of a big media company. I told her I was fired and that I probably need a lawyer. She dropped everything and made one call and said, ‘This is your guy.’

A good woman friend came through for me. I didn’t have a personal lawyer. I never had a lawyer negotiate any of my jobs. That reference served me very well. I really tried as the refrigerator magnet says, “Stay calm and carry on.”

Where do you think the media is moving?

I am working on a startup with Steven Brill. Trying to build an entire institution and new newsroom is very difficult. What Steven and I are doing is going back to our roots as narrative storytellers — deep, deep reporting.

Our idea is very simple, which is: Publish one amazing story a month in a space that is longer than a New Yorker article but shorter than a book. When it’s appropriate to make these stories multimedia, the multimedia will deepen the storytelling. It will be subscription-based.

If you were to ask me what the most influential media institution is right now, I would say Facebook.

There are a lot of new institutions that are exciting. I think Vice Media is doing a lot of quality, narrative journalism. I have spent a lot of time looking at their longer videos, some of which are amazing, but along with the good you get stupid s**t.

The same is true with BuzzFeed. They do some great journalism. Ben Smith breaks a lot of important news, but there are cute, corgi butts along with the news. These are institutions that are achieving success with a new formula.

I have worked at the most amazing news institutions that I think exist. I worked at Time magazine, NBC News, Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times. I have immense respect for the great institutions of the media, but I am not out to rebuild any of them.

I want to devote the time I have left to reporting and telling stories — some of which I write myself, and some of which are created by young journalists and some of the great legendary names.

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