Jill Abramson of The NY Times: Quality Journalism Will Survive
May 27, 2009
New York Times managing editor Jill Abramson — the first woman to hold that position — gave the 40th annual Lehman Lecture in April 2009, speaking about "The Importance of Quality Journalism."
24 Minutes 53 Seconds
"Inspiring Talks" features faculty, guest speakers, and experts discussing their own stories of adversity and success, as well as hopeful new developments, in a variety of fields.
This is Sarah Sumler, a student at Lehman College. New York Times managing editor Jill Abramson — the first woman to hold that position — gave the 40th annual Lehman Lecture in April 2009, speaking about "The Importance of Quality Journalism." She joined the Times in 1997, after working for several years as a reporter and editor for The Wall Street Journal, and was appointed as managing editor for news in 2003.
In her talk, she describes several aspects of the Times' coverage that she believes are essential to our democracy, and important to continue, regardless of whether the news is delivered in print, on the web, or through some other method.
Everywhere, the prophets of journalism are busy with their proclamations. "Newspapers are dead. Magazines are barely on life support. Readers will never pay for news on the web. Readers must pay for news on the web. Journalism must find a way to generate more profits. Journalism must, itself, become a nonprofit." Behind all this noise is a valid concern. Quality journalism plays an irreplaceable role in our society, and there is too little of it during these times of turbulent transition in the news business.
But this I know: The New York Times is going to continue to be the bedrock of quality journalism. This is the real news about the news. I've never been fond of soothsaying, and I'll share with you a small personal story about why that is. My grandfather arrived here in New York from Hungary a century ago.
He was a milliner. He made the voyage with Adolph Zucker who had started a little nickelodeon business called Famous Players, which later became Paramount Pictures. Mr. Zucker offered my grandfather the chance to be a ground floor investor in his new burgeoning medium, but my grandfather turned the opportunity down after considering it overnight, with these immortal words. He said, "Surely, these moving pictures are a passing fancy. But ladies will always wear hats." So, here I stand, hatless, before you, and you know, I really do often think of this cautionary tale, not only because of a family fortune never earned.
It says something about the pace of change in our society. The need for looking around corners. The futility of thinking you know what the future will look like, especially in the arena of technology. And dare I say it, it says something about the enduring value of certain national treasures.
For instance, think back to the inauguration. That was quite a hat Aretha Franklin was wearing. The Smithsonian has asked to exhibit it. I don't know if she's going to hand it over yet, though. The value of the Times isn't rooted in any particular platform, but in our readers, and in the journalists who produce our news reports each day. We have 830,000 loyal readers who have subscribed to the newspaper for more than two years. A number that surprisingly, to many of you who have been reading all of the gloom and doom about my industry, that number has increased over the last decade.
They like reading the printed paper, and they pay a substantial amount for that pleasure. That's not to say that they don't also visit NYTimes.com, which has a unique monthly audience of 20 million. It's the largest newspaper website. Or read our journalism on their mobile devices.
It's true that the business model for producing quality journalism has been under a great deal of stress lately. But here, too, the Times is better positioned to weather the secular changes in our industry. That's because we integrated our print and web newsrooms much early than our competitors. As a newspaper with a national readership, we are also less dependent than other regional papers on classified advertising, which is the area of the news business that has been under the most intense stress.
Our competitors simply can't offer their advertisers the same national quality readership we have. I don't say this boastfully. It pains me to see rival publications and websites shrinking, or going away altogether. It was shocking on Monday when the Detroit automakers were the biggest story of the week, that the daily newspapers in Detroit had no home delivery the next morning.
Competition makes us better. The economic climate and secular changes in the newspaper industries have made some aspects of life and my job hard for us at the Times, too. The expense of everything we do, including newsprint, has gone up exponentially. It's terrible to see storied names, like the Tribune Company, declaring bankruptcy, and newsroom staffs across America being cut to shreds. There's talk right now that San Francisco, a great, thriving city, a cultural landmark in our country, that it can't perhaps support a daily print newspaper.
Quality regional papers like the Boston Globe, which is very much part of the New York Times family, have suffered disproportionately. Again, because the Times has a global audience and a national base, we are much better situated to weather this storm, and as I noted earlier, we have a readership like none other.
Times readers tend to be highly educated, relatively young. The median age is about 45, which I know may seem ancient to some of you Lehman College kids here, but it is 15 years younger than the audience for the nightly news programs on broadcast television. They're well off, active, and engaged. They regard the Times as more relationship than a transaction. Our readers are passionate about us, both in expressing their delight and their anger.
I'm reminded of this regularly when I go online to answer readers' questions, or every day when I go to the inbox of my e-mail. Bill Keller, the executive editor and my boss, often jokes with me that there are so many of those little red chili peppers next to the incoming messages that he and I could go into the salsa business.
Indeed, just yesterday, I arrived at work, to see the red message light on my telephone burning brightly. And there was a message from a reader, very polite. She was very polite, but she was very angry, because we had gotten the date wrong in an article. We had made a citation about a famous speech against women that had been delivered by the Scottish reformer, John Knox. 1558, for those of you whom may care about the day. Our readers expect us, and they should, to be erudite, precise, and always correct. I made sure to correct the date as quickly as possible yesterday.
Decades from now, the quality newspapers that are left may not literally be on paper. They may be on portable tablets, or on some other device we haven't even envisioned. But the journalism will continue to thrive. My optimism is based on what something even you liberal arts types, who bluffed your way through economics, may recognize.
All economic activity arises from a scarcity of goods and services in comparison to human wants and needs. There is a human want and need for trustworthy information about the world we live in. Information that is tested, investigated, sorted, checked again, analyzed, and presented in a cogent form. Some people want it because it helps them in their work. Some want it because they regard being well informed as a condition of good citizenship. Some want it so that they can get the jokes on Conan O'Brien's late-night TV show.
So, the demand is there, but the supply is scarce. In the age of too much information, that may seem ludicrous, but information is not what people crave. What they want and need is judgment. Someone they can trust to ferret out the information, dig behind it, and make sense of it. They want analytic depth, skepticism, context, and a presentation that most of all honors their intelligence.
They want stories that are elegantly told and compelling, with the best quality pictures and videos. And they want to be part of the conversation, which makes some of our new blogs so lively and informative. What else besides quality journalism is going to feed this appetite? Quality journalism is expensive. The Times spends millions of dollars to maintain a fully staffed bureau of reporters and photographers in Baghdad, at a time when almost everything, everyone else, including the television networks, are retreating.
In the immediate aftermath of the Iraq War in 2003, there were over 1,000 foreign journalists covering this story. That number had dwindled to fewer than 100 by last year, and now the number is even smaller. Even with local elections and the compelling question of how a draw-down of troops later this year could play out.
Even with attacks on the rise again in Baghdad, as some of you may have read on our front page today. The reason the numbers are shrinking is not because Iraq is no longer a compelling or newsworthy subject. It's the cost. In a recent article, the Atlantic Magazine, which I really respect a lot, and read with interest every month, suggested that the Huffington Post or other bloggers could fill the gap if the Times went away.
In fact, the magazine article predicted that the Times would be going out of business in May, a prediction I can tell you with confidence this April 1st is phooey. But anyway, there are some fine blogs out there, that do actual digging and reporting, and the Huffington Post has a very interesting array of bloggers. And it does a good job of aggregating the news each day.
I applaud the recent announcement on Monday, in fact, that the Huffington Post would be underwriting original investigative reporting, perhaps giving work to journalists who have lost their jobs as newspapers have retreated from the investigative field. But without the Times and original reporting by professional journalists, there would not be enough rich, thoroughly reported material to aggregate or riff about. Citizen bloggers played an extremely vital role as eye witnesses during Hurricane Katrina, and during the terrorist attacks earlier this year in Mumbai.
We published wonderful photographs taken on cell phones and sent in by readers during the inauguration. Some of you, in the past few weeks, may have been enjoying on our websites the comparative stories often told on videos, on our website, about what the Depression in the Thirties was like, compared to now and that material was reader and user generated. Wonderful and original though it is, these are not replacements for the work of professional reporters or photographers. Fun to watch, though they are, partisan cable shows on the left and right would have little to shout about without the daily cannon fodder provided by the Times. On some stories, especially with those dealing with intelligence matters or complex business deals, it can take months for the best investigative reporters at the Times to convince some sources to talk, to obtain sensitive documents, and to do their difficult reporting.
They win the confidence of their sources because of their knowledge, the depth of their reporting, their courage and their reputation. Think of the reporting of Dexter Filkins, the Times correspondent who has covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, worked on in extreme danger, work that requires years of training and experience.
This is what enriches his pieces in the Times, like his recent article about Afghan girls who, in the face of vicious attacks and having acid thrown in their faces, still traveled miles to attend school. Or his extraordinary book, The Forever War. What we do is costly, labor-intensive, and sometimes extremely dangerous. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, the most pressing foreign policy problems facing the new Obama administration, few news organizations have fulltime reporters.
The world relies on the work of Times correspondents Carlotta Gall and Jane Perlez, both intrepid and experienced war correspondents, to report on what is really going on. The complexities and dimension of the financial crisis also demand the resources of quality journalism.
The Times's Gretchen Morgenson saw the housing bubble and the looming credit crisis years ago, and she wrote column after column, warning about them on the Times' business pages. She has been one of the diligent reporters working on a series of investigative articles the Times has published under the collective rubric, The Reckoning, holding financial institutions and the government to account for this crisis. It's very difficult to do this kind of accountability journalism in real time, which is why so many publications prefer to publish after the fact autopsies.
The Times views this work as a civic contribution. Quality journalism flourishes on our pioneering website, more now than ever. Our stories are actually sometimes, I find, more powerful on video. Our ongoing series on immigration, which is run on Sundays in the newspaper, has had fantastic interactive graphics and videos.
This kind of journalism teaches us about the fabric of our country, and how it has dealt with the challenges of the vastly changing population. I'm so proud of these stories, which have been told by our journalists with such intelligence and humanity. When the Times recently published a story about the sorry state of the reconstruction program in Iraq, we put hundreds of pages of original documents on the web. When we published an investigative series on Russia in the Putin era, we published a story on the web in Russian, and published and translated reader comments, back into English.
The web does quite literally democratize the news. There are not many publications that would let a reporter dig for months, exploring the battered streets of Central Falls, Rhode Island, and the state of our detention center that had been sold as the city's salvation, where immigrants, our reporter Nina Bernstein found, were routinely denied basic medical attention and some had even died.
Bernstein threw the first real spotlight on deaths in detention. "Thank God for what you do," wrote Theodore N. Cox, a prominent immigration lawyer in New York. Investigative reporting, because it is so expensive and time-consuming, and takes a long time to show a payoff, is one of the things on the chopping block in many of the newsrooms of my competitors.
But without investigative reporters like Dexter and Nina, how would the public be informed? Who will there be to write about the next Pentagon Papers, or Watergate? Without quality journalism, like the Times' exposť on the Bush administration's secret, illegal, warrant-less wiretapping program, we would not know about crucial aspects of the so-called war on terror.
I worked for nearly 20 years as an investigative journalist in Washington. Even before 9/11, our capital had become suffused in a culture of secrecy. Before the attacks on New York and Washington, President Bush and his closest advisors had set about to restore the power of the executive branch of government, that they believed had been wrongly eroded in the aftershocks of Vietnam and Watergate. One of the first major projects I assigned in the Times' Washington bureau involved a survey of the new administration's effort to stifle public information, which had begun immediately.
The government had already begun to routinely turn down Freedom of Information Act requests. And to keep attendees at White House policy meetings secret. After 9/11, there was an explosive increase in the number of government documents stamped "classified." Information of all kinds inside the government was automatically stamped "secret" even at such non-defense or homeland security departments, such as the EPA or the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services. My Times colleague, Jim Risen, who broke the stories about the NSA's eavesdropping program, called this atmosphere for journalists "difficult and poisonous." Without professional investigative reporters like Jim and Dana Priest of the Washington Post, and Jane Mayer of the New Yorker, who has a proud association with Lehman College, because she's a member of the extended Lehman family, the public might never have known about the full dimensions of the government's eavesdropping, secret prisons, or torture programs.
While the new Obama administration has reversed some of these policies, don't assume the sun will shine in on all government operations. All politicians these days want to control and even manipulate the news, often bypassing the most aggressive outlets, like the Times.
At the dawn of a new administration, it's more important than ever to remind ourselves that a free and unfettered press was the very instrument that our founders believed was vital to self-government and the vehicle for spreading information necessary to hold the government accountable. It's really very easy to forget how afraid of centralized authority the men who invented this country were.
History also tells us that society is harmed when the press is too timid. When the Times learned in advance about planning for the Bay of Pigs, President Kennedy successfully argued with top editors and correspondents of the Times to keep the story under wraps. Later, he lamented that the fiasco might have been avoided if the Times had been less compliant.
Similarly, the press failure to dig deeply enough into classified and faulty prewar intelligence on Iraq's WMD programs has been rightly criticized, including two credulous stories that ran on the front page of the Times. So, how do we prevent the collective muscle of investigative journalism from being cut? The challenge for my profession and for the Times is to find a business model that sustains a singular journalism.
There are promising new experiments, like ProPublica, an independent nonprofit that employs dozens of investigative reporters and editors, and gives away its fine investigative stories to other news organizations and publications. Recent proposals by Walter Isaacson, formally the editor of Time Magazine, and Steven Brill focus on asking readers to make micro-payments for the articles that they read on the web.
Some have proposed foundation models. The Nation Magazine, in a cover published last week, has called for government subsidies to support journalism. I can assure you that the very best minds at the Times are tackling this issue, and that approaches for a sustainable business model are being discussed and studied throughout the industry and at the Times. The Times is extremely lucky to be owned by another great New York family, the Sulzbergers, who view the Times and quality journalism as a trust.
We are especially lucky to have a chairman and publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., who believes with his heart, his soul, and very much with his business head that quality journalism is a very good business to be in. He's been unfairly criticized for this, but I can tell you from my experience working for him that the survival of great journalism depends on champions like Arthur and his family.
One of the thrills of my job was helping to pick the front pages for the election night and inauguration issues of the Times. On election night, I got out of work, actually, we knew the results early for once. Obama was declared the winner at about 11:00, and after we had closed the newspaper, which had that iconic headline that just said "Obama," I sat and had a couple of glasses of wine with some of my fellow editors and the political writers at the Times.
And when I got downstairs at about 1:00 AM, there was a crowd of about 50 people outside of our building. Most of them were in their 20s or early 30s, and they were clamoring for the newspaper. I had to explain to them that the presses no longer were situated in the Times building, and that the only newspapers I actually had upstairs were the early edition of the paper, which didn't yet have the picture of the Obamas coming out to declare victory.
But they said, "We don't care. We want the newspaper." And the guards in the new Times building were, like, chastising me. They said, "Don't give them anything. More of them will come." And I was like, "Are you kidding? Like, how wonderful to have all these people wanting, you know, the good old-fashioned print newspaper." And so I went back upstairs, and I gave them the papers I had. And when I arrived at work the next morning, there was a line going four blocks down the street.
The Times was sold out everywhere, and we had taken care to print hundreds of thousands of extra copies of that day's paper. But still, the lines formed. We ended up going back to the press several times. But, you know, it was a really wonderful reminder to me of the centrality, the importance of quality publications like the Times.
So, I'll end just by assuring you that there's plenty of life left in the New York Times. And for the students out there who are interested in becoming journalists, I absolutely encourage your passion. It's a wonderful profession. It's a passport to meet the most interesting people in our society, and for you loyal Times readers in the audience, I want to say thank you. And I'll close by quoting my best friend at the Times, Maureen Dowd, who often says, "It's the best time you can have for a buck-fifty." So, thank you. (APPLAUSE)
Visit us at www.lehman.edu. This is a production of the Lehman College Media Relations Office.
[END OF AUDIO]