Do you find it more difficult to read a book these days? Or even a long article? Do you catch yourself pausing every so often (OK, make that every few minutes) to see what’s new on Facebook, scroll through Twitter, check email, or possibly all of the above? Has concentration given way to distraction?
It’s easy to imagine how Jill Abramson’s new book might have turned out differently. In “Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts,” the veteran journalist follows the fortunes of four media organizations. BuzzFeed and Vice are young, energetic, willing to break rules and try new things. The New York Times and The Washington Post are stodgy, sclerotic giants trying to grope their way toward a digital future. We all know how that’s going to turn out. Right?
Well, something unexpected happened on the way to the old-media boneyard.
If you feel under par, work your fingers to the bone, and know it’s time for a change, click on the Cliché Site to trade tired phrases for compelling images.
That was one of myriad tips from top nonfiction writers last weekend at Boston University’s annual narrative journalism conference.
Organized by BU journalism department writer-in-residence Mark Kramer, the conference drew some 400 writers and editors from around the world. They discussed everything from viral content to social justice reporting to humanizing even the worst criminals.
Kramer preached his well-known gospel of “austerity of language: elegant, taut” prose that convinces readers they’re in the hands of an engaging storyteller. “Go on a to be hunt,” he said. “Get rid of whens and as’s. Lose clichés and metaphors.”
Keynote speaker Jill Abramson, a former New York Times executive editor now teaching at Harvard, repeated the good writing mantra: “Show, don’t tell. Collect anecdotes and revealing detail.” She called Gay Talese’s 1966 classic “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” the epitome of the narrative genre.
Abramson had good news and bad news as journalism faces a “rapid riptide of change.” The good: long, ambitious reporting is in high demand. She singled out BuzzFeed’s “wonderful” criminal justice series and former Times colleague Jeff Gerth’s exposé of Hillary Clinton’s private emails as exemplars of excellent coverage delivered over new platforms. Gerth, a two-time Times Pulitzer winner now with ProPublica, co-wrote the March 27 article with Gawker reporter Sam Biddle.
The bad news, according to Abramson: worldwide legal threats to freedom of the press. She noted that a study of corruption in Russia under President Vladimir Putin hasn’t been published in Britain because of fears of legal action.
Abramson sees storytelling platforms consistently shifting, with platforms such as Snapchat and Instagram giving nonfiction writers new tools and outlets.
One of those is BuzzFeed, where Mark Schoofs, a Pulitzer winner at The Village Voice, now leads an investigative unit as the site augments viral content with some 130 domestic and foreign news staffers,
Schoofs said social justice reporting hasn’t changed much since Upton Sinclair, Ida Tarbell and others started muckraking powerful institutions more than 100 years ago. As ever, he said, it is based on “the desire to change, to expose a wrong, to have your journalism matter.”
He said these stories may start with “outrage,” but you have to skewer sacred cows if their assertions are incorrect. “You’re not in the tank for any one ideology or group. Test your assumptions versus whatever you see on the ground.”
He loves immersive participatory journalism and stories that have wrongdoing at their heart, calling David Barstow’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Times series on Wal-Mart bribery one of the best in recent years.
Exposing wrongdoing? Fine. But why humanize evil-doers?
Beth Schwartzapfel examines the inner lives of rapists and murderers because “just calling someone a scumbag is lazy, way too easy. He’s a person” and understanding him can be a valuable way to examine what made him do it.
Schwartzapfel is a staff writer with the Marshall Project, a new nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that covers the criminal justice, system; she is also a frequent freelancer. She tries to get beyond obvious good guy/bad guy distinctions, asking what if Truman Capote’s groundbreaking “In Cold Blood” had ignored the killers and concentrated only on their victims.
Profiling a man who’s served more than three decades for a murder he committed as a teenager, she doesn’t gloss over what he did. She includes graphic descriptions of the crimes and always details the victim’s family’s grievous loss.
“Don’t give [inmates] a soapbox,” she said. “Being sympathetic is not being their advocate. Let readers come to their own conclusions” about whether they deserve parole. “Show how they’re human, not how they’ve been wronged. That’s up to the reader to decide. I tell them ‘I see it as my task to make you human.’”
As an example of a profile that goes far beyond the image of a stock villain, she praised Albert Samaha’s Village Voice profile of a New York City detective who framed innocent men to boost his conviction rate.
Some dismiss memoir as an unreliable narrator’s narcissistic ramble through the past. But in “Big Little Man,” Alex Tizon created a highly praised blend of history, memoir and social analysis.
“Many people dismiss memoir as easy, and a lot of the time memoir is just a cheaper form of storytelling — but it doesn’t have to be,” said Tizon, who won a Pulitzer for investigative reporting while at The Seattle Times. “Report the hell out of your own story,” he advised, having interviewed about 40 people for his book’s exploration of Asian-American masculinity.
To write a memoir, he said, “you have to risk being a fool unless you’re writing public relations. Include the painful parts. I put my siblings at a certain risk — what to leave out? I had to ask, ‘Could I live with this if a sister never spoke to me again?’ The truth is impossible, but my aim is to be as truthful as possible.”
Bill Kirtz is an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University.
Jill Abramson, fired (her words) last summer as New York Times executive editor, will join with Steven Brill on a startup to “give great journalists money they can live on.”
In a Boston University question-and-answer session Monday evening, she provided few details but said she and Brill — who won the National Magazine Award last year for his Time magazine cover story on medical costs — will write one story a year for the site. She said they’ve been pitching potential investors on the project.
Abramson was joined on stage by New York Times media columnist David Carr, a visiting professor at BU, who served up a steady stream of questions to his former boss.
In other remarks, Abramson praised former Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee as “the most consequential editor of my lifetime” and called The New York Review of Books a “perfect publication.”
Abramson, now teaching a once-a-week class at Harvard on narrative journalism, condemned “false equivalence” — reporting “on the one hand/on the other hand” as if each side is equally credible.”
After weighing and sifting all the facts, she said, journalists have the right to determine which side is right. As an example, she cited “Strange Justice,” the 1994 book she wrote with her then Wall Street Journal colleague Jane Mayer. They concluded that Supreme Court nominee (now Justice) Clarence Thomas had lied about significant incidents in his past.
“What is the press but calling power people and institutions to account?” she asked.
Bill Kirtz is an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University.
When Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post last year for the paltry sum (especially for him) of $250 million, newspaper observers hoped that it presaged a new era for the struggling daily. For now, at least, it looks like those hopes are becoming a reality.
The Post is ramping up. Michael Calderone of The Huffington Post reported recently that the paper has hired 50 full-time staff journalists so far in 2014, and that it is making at least a partial return to its status as a national newspaper — a status it had retreated from during the final years of Graham family ownership. Executive editor Marty Baron told Calderone:
We’ve talked a lot about the need to grow. We’ve said that in order to grow, we have to look outside our own immediate region and the only opportunity for growth is digital. We are looking at growth opportunities around the country.
Richard Byrne Reilly recently wrote in VentureBeat that Bezos isn’t quite the hands-off owner that he appears to be, taking a deep interest in the paper’s digital initiatives. According to Reilly:
With chief information officer and technology vice president Shailesh Prakash at the helm, Bezos is pumping cash into the once staid company’s IT infrastructure. Lots of it. The new leadership has put 25 computer engineers into the newsroom, helping reporters craft multifaceted digital stories for mobile devices.
The Post’s expansion is a heartening development, and it’s one we’re seeing unfold in Boston as well. Red Sox principal owner John Henry, whose $75 million purchase of The Boston Globe was announced just days before Bezos said he was buying the Post, has, like Bezos, shown a willingness to try to grow his news organization out of the doldrums into which it had fallen.
The Globe is making some interesting moves into video; has redesigned its nearly two-decade-old free Boston.com site while moving all Globe content behind a flexible paywall at BostonGlobe.com; has developed new verticals for innovation and technology (BetaBoston) and arts and entertainment (RadioBDC and BDCWire); and will soon unveil a standalone site covering the Catholic Church.
As for the Post, it’s notable that its comeback coincides with a serious misstep at The New York Times — the botched firing of executive editor Jill Abramson. Combined with the loss this week of the Times’ chief digital strategist, Aron Pilhofer, to The Guardian, and the release of an internal report criticizing the Times’ own digital strategy, it may not be an exaggeration to suggest that energy and momentum have swung from the Times to the Post. (To be sure, the Times’ new executive editor, Dean Baquet, enjoys an excellent reputation.)
From the Pentagon Papers and Watergate in the early 1970s until about a decade ago, the Times and the Post were often mentioned in the same breath as our two leading newspapers. Good as the Post was during the final years of the Graham era, budget-cutting allowed the Times to open up a lead and remain in a category of its own.
It would be great for journalism and for all of us if Bezos, Baron and company are able to level the playing field once again.
Photo (cc) by Steve Jurvetson and used under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.
Ken Auletta of The New Yorker keeps chipping away. This is fascinating stuff. The fickle finger of blame for why New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson was fired shifts from chief executive officer Mark Thompson (OK, that was just a theory of mine) to new editor Dean Baquet. (And, of course, and always, publisher Arthur Sulzberger.)
And as Auletta points out, the big question still hasn’t been answered: “Why did the Times, which so heralded the hiring of its first female executive editor, terminate Abramson in such a brutal fashion?”
My two favorite stories about Jill Abramson both speak to her insistence on holding The New York Times to account. Those stories may help explain why she was removed as executive editor on Wednesday.
The first pertains to investor Steven Rattner, a friend of publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. who was being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission over a kickback scheme involving the New York State pension fund. (In November 2010 Rattner paid a $6.2 million settlement and accepted a two-year ban on some of his trading activities.)
According to The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta, Abramson — then the managing editor, serving as Bill Keller’s number two — didn’t hesitate to green-light a front-page investigative report on Rattner, the Sulzberger connection be damned. “What better test is there for an editor than how they handle the publisher’s best friend?” Auletta quoted an unnamed Times source as saying.
To Sulzberger’s credit, the incident didn’t prevent him from naming Abramson to succeed Keller in 2011. But what may have created an irreparable breech was a second, similar story. In 2012, Sulzberger chose Mark Thompson, the former director general of the BBC, to become chief executive officer of the New York Times Co. Before Thompson could begin, Abramson dispatched one of the Times’ top investigative reporters to look into whether Thompson had any role in the child-sex-abuse scandal whirling around Jimmy Savile, a once-popular TV host.
Both Thompson and Sulzberger were angry, reports Gabriel Sherman in New York magazine. A source was quoted as saying of Sulzberger: “He was livid, in a very passive aggressive way. These were a set of headaches Jill had created for Arthur.”
Now the Times’ internal top cop is off the beat. And Thompson, presumably, has a freer hand to enact his agenda — an agenda that is said to include, among other things, more online video and more native advertising, the term of art used to describe what used to be disparagingly referred to as “advertorials.”
Abramson’s successor and former number two, Dean Baquet, is now the paper’s first African-American executive editor, a not-insignificant milestone on a par with Abramson’s being the first woman. He is said to be a fine editor and a popular choice with the newsroom.
But given that Sulzberger’s own son recently wrote a report arguing that the Times isn’t moving quickly enough on the digital front, it might seem strange that Abramson’s successor would be someone regarded as even less digitally savvy than she. The likely explanation is that Thompson sees himself as the paper’s chief digital officer. Certainly Thompson does not lack for confidence. Less than a year ago he supposedly told a Times executive, “I could be the editor of the New York Times,” according to an article by Joe Hagan in New York magazine.
I don’t mean to play down any of the other reasons that have been given for Abramson’s abrupt and brutal dismissal. There is the matter of her brusque demeanor, described in detail last year by Dylan Byers of Politico. At the time I dismissed it as anonymously sourced sexism, but Byers is deservedly taking a victory lap this week.
Another factor was her complaints about making less money than Bill Keller did when he was editor, a story Ken Auletta broke within hours of Abramson’s dismissal. Auletta reported that Abramson even learned she made less than a male deputy managing editor when she was managing editor. The Times has denied all, although in language that makes it hard to figure out what, precisely, it is denying.
And then there is the incident that may have precipitated the final crisis — her reported attempts to hire Janine Gibson away from The Guardian to serve as a co-managing editor for digital without bothering to inform Baquet. Certainly that’s the angle that the Times’ David Carr and Ravi Somaiya play up in their own coverage of Abramson’s dismissal. (Other accounts say Gibson would have been a deputy managing editor, and thus presumably less of a threat to Baquet’s authority.)
Still, none of these reasons sufficiently explains why Sulzberger believed Abramson needed to be dealt with so harshly. She was all but hustled out of the building, treated like Howell Raines after he was dismissed for enabling a plagiarizing, fabricating young journalist named Jayson Blair. By contrast, the Times under Abramson’s editorship has been a journalistic success and has done reasonably well financially at a time when the news business has been imploding, as Matthew Yglesias explains at Vox. (Vox also takes the prize for the best Abramson headline: “Tattooed, puppy-stealing badass editor Jill Abramson out at the New York Times.”)
“I think what it says to us is there is still enormous challenges for women out there, for women who assume those key and influential roles in journalism,” Melissa Ludtke, a pioneering sports journalist and former editor of Nieman Reports, told Politico’s Anna Palmer.
I think it’s more complicated than that. It is nevertheless a fact that in the past few years Sulzberger has fired two of the highest-ranking women in the newspaper business — first Janet Robinson, creating the vacancy that Mark Thompson later filled, and now Abramson.
In addressing the staff Wednesday, Sulzberger referred to “an issue with management in the newsroom.” That’s not good enough. And it’s not the kind of accountability Abramson pushed for in covering the powerful institution that she worked for. I hope we’ll learn more in the days ahead.
By Bill Kirtz
Leading news figures this weekend blasted expanding investigations of national-security leaks, detailed the dilemma of dealing with confidential sources and offered ways to restore credibility in a media universe that merges fact with fiction.
Their comments came at Boston’s Investigative Reporters and Editors conference attended by some 1,200 established and aspiring journalists.
New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson said the Obama administration’s widening probes have created an “urgent” problem because it has a “chilling effect” on confidential sources. She said the current Washington environment “has never been tougher and [confidential] information harder to dislodge.”
She said the attorney general’s latest attempts to ferret out leakers raise the question of whether the U.S. Espionage Act “is being used as a substitute for” Britain’s wide-ranging Official Secrets Act.
Using the Espionage Act, the current administration is pursuing six leak-related criminal cases. That’s twice as many as all previous administrations combined brought since the act was passed in 1917 to punish anyone who “knowingly and willfully” passes on information that hurts the country or helps a foreign power “to the detriment of the United States.”
The Official Secrets Act makes it unlawful to disclose information relating to defense, security and intelligence, international relations, intelligence gained from other departments or international organizations and intelligence useful to criminals.
Alluding to recent Times stories about U.S. drone strikes and computer attacks aimed at Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, Abramson said the government’s policy on cyber warfare is an important subject about which the public needs to know.
The vast majority of her paper’s national-security disclosures come from “old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting” and not from leaks, she said. And before they run, she said, “We give all responsible officials a chance to reply” and will hold or cut information if they raise a legitimate security objection.
Times media columnist David Carr called the government investigations an “appalling” attempt to restrict information about significant issues.
“Whistle-blowers aren’t scarce but the people who blow them are,” he said, citing as an example the indictment of a National Security Agency worker who told a Baltimore Sun reporter about a failed technology program.
“As war becomes less visible and becomes its own ‘dark ops,’ reporters are trying to punch through and bring accountability,” he said. Carr added that while it’s easy to say leak-based scoops come gift-wrapped, they usually come from reporters working hard and asking the right questions. Continue reading “Pushing back against the White House anti-leak crusade”
Recently I gave a thumb’s-up to “Page One,” the documentary about the New York Times media desk. I did have a quibble:
As a friend observed, the documentary was heavily tilted toward men, which seems odd given that before it ends, we see the executive editor’s baton being passed from Bill Keller to Jill Abramson.
Now Jim Romenesko reports that two women on the media desk, Stephanie Clifford and Motoko Rich, were asked to take part and declined. Perhaps filmmaker Andrew Rossi could have tried a bit harder to get a female perspective, but now we know that he did make an attempt.
At long last, I got to see “Page One: Inside the New York Times” at a screening last night at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center. It’s a terrifically entertaining look at the culture inside the Times newsroom, focusing on the media desk’s coverage of the newspaper meltdown of 2009 and ’10. I brought a couple of students with me, and they were pretty enthusiastic about it as we were driving back to Northeastern.
As you have no doubt heard, the stars are columnist David Carr and reporter Brian Stelter, two people whose talents, though formidable, pale in comparison to their inhuman productivity. Carr easily slips into the role of Carr, a late-middle-aged reformed drug addict who genially F-bombs his way through interviews and public appearances, building up to his monumental takedown of Tribune Co. and its abusive owner, Sam Zell. Stelter, young and earnest, is the perfect counterpoint. (I know both of them slightly, Carr better than Stelter.)
Director Andrew Rossi and Shorenstein Center director Alex Jones kicked it around afterwards.
An obsessive media junkie probably won’t learn much, but I really enjoyed being immersed in Timesland for 90 minutes. Quibbles? As a friend observed, the documentary was heavily tilted toward men, which seems odd given that before it ends, we see the executive editor’s baton being passed from Bill Keller to Jill Abramson.
And though it was unavoidable, the sense of panic that pervaded the business when the film was being shot has abated to at least some degree. We’re hardly out of the woods. It seems that every day, we hear about cost-cutting and layoffs. But the notion that was prevalent a year or two ago, that the entire newspaper business was in its death throes, now appears to have been exaggerated. If “Page One” were shot today, I suspect it would be more optimistic.