In her new book Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts, out February 5, Jill Abramson chronicles the upheaval that has rocked the media industry over the past decade, as told through the stories of four outlets: BuzzFeed, Vice, the Washington Post and the New York Times. Of course, if anyone is well-positioned to write about turbulence in the industry it’s Abramson, who in 2011 became the first woman to be executive editor of the Times, before she was fired from the role in 2014. Those years coincided with a period of industry-wide change from print- to digital-first thinking; a shift in news publishing that Abramson spent the following years reporting on for her book, while teaching non-fiction at Harvard, and spending time with her two grandchildren. Here’s how she’s been getting it all done.
On her morning routine:
The first thing I do when I get up in the morning is look at news on my cell phone. I look at a million outlets. I look at the New York Times briefing, I look at several Politico newsletters, Axios, the Washington Post app. I’ll sometimes look at The Skimm when I have time. I look at BuzzFeed News every morning. And, you know, from time to time, I look at what videos Vice has put up on YouTube. I often do that in bed with some coffee; I drink Cafe Du Monde coffee with chicory. Then I shower and get dressed. And, you know, breakfast is pretty light. Usually, if I have time, I make a little oatmeal. Maybe some grapefruit juice in the winter.
I’m a gym rat. It’s totally a stress-reliever. In terms of where I exercise, my week is very split. I teach at Harvard usually Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, and I’ll work out at one of their gyms. There, I’m exercising on my own. And then I come to New York for the end of the week, the weekend usually, and I work out with a fantastic trainer named Gene Schafer at ARC Athletics in Tribeca. My husband is mostly in a house in Madison, Connecticut, which at first was a summer house but now he’s kind of there full-time with our dog, Scout, and I also belong to a gym there.
On what she learned about herself from writing the book:
I always have thought that I was mainly a reporter and a digger. That that’s the part of journalism I loved most. And in writing the book, I found great pleasure in writing itself and figuring out a narrative structure, how to create narrative tension when you’re describing events where the reader could possibly know how the story goes it. It surprised me how much I loved the writing part.
On her interview tips:
I’ve tried really hard over the years to shut up and listen. Don’t interrupt the person you’re interviewing. Those are early lessons that kind of came back. I’d occasionally catch myself blah blah blah-ing and try and say in my interior voice: shut up. But I always go into an interview with someone with an idea of one or two or three things that are the things I desperately want. And I obviously don’t usually ask about them at the very beginning. And that remained the same.
I do not record. I’ve never recorded. I’m a very fast note-taker. When someone kind of says the “it” thing that I have really wanted, I don’t start scribbling right away. I have an almost photographic memory and so I wait a beat or two while they’re onto something else, and then I write down the previous thing they said. Because you don’t want your subject to get nervous about what they just said.
On how she handles criticism and stress:
I’m not unflappable, and I’ve been ordered by family and friends to kind of use them as medieval tasters. So like, they’ll look at the bad stuff and tell me what I need to pay attention to. I was paying attention to that criticism of the book on Twitter, but I wasn’t surprised about it, because of what Twitter is. When I was executive editor of the Times I had a yoga teacher who came to my apartment who was actually my classmate at Harvard and that was a very pleasant experience. I was very tense and stressed out during those years and it helped.
On how her lifestyle changed after leaving the Times:
A real revelation to me was right away after I was fired how much I treasured being in charge of me. At the Times, my assistant would give me my schedule every day and it was segmented into 15-minute portions, I was running and going to a lot of meetings that I didn’t feel I had a lot to contribute to. That was a real revelation, to set my own priorities. I guess the downside is I miss the bustle and social connections and interesting conversations that the New York Times newsroom was full of and I miss the people I worked with there. I like my Harvard colleagues a lot but book writing is kind of solitary, I had a fantastic assistant who helped me with everything. The book wouldn’t have happened without him, but he was the only person like day to day that I could talk to about my work on the book.
On what she’d say to journalists who have been laid off recently:
A number of them have called me. I knew young journalists who worked at Mic and of course know some people who worked at BuzzFeed. Having had to do some layoffs at the Times — I mean Arthur Sulzberger Jr., you know, in my opinion, is kind of a hero of journalism because he never slashed to pieces the paper’s reporting muscles — what I say to them and what I really believe is keep the faith. There are jobs. It’s very destabilizing to lose one but everyone has a network of journalist friends who work at other places and something will open up. And if you have a passion for it, stay in journalism, don’t think “Oh, I’ve got to switch into another career path.” And that may sound Pollyanna-ish, but I think more often than not it works out.
On the future of journalism:
We live in times where the big players are the winners, and I think you are going to see more merging of digital news companies. I think the great news organizations like the Times and the Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal and The Guardian, they’re gonna make it. I think producing quality news that can’t be found anywhere else and asking readers to pay for it is the best business model right now. I don’t know whether they’ll make it looking way out on the horizon with the current corporate structure they have. But you kind of have to be big I think to survive, and the tragedy of that is the loss of local reporting and the loss of so many journalism jobs at the local and regional level. There’s so little watchdog journalism being done at that level and that’s my biggest worry. It’s what I end the book with.
I have an unusual situation in that my son-in-law and my daughter are both surgeons in New York right now, and they’re living in my loft so I’m living with them for half the the week. I like to cook dinner for them, although my son-in-law is a colorectal surgeon, so I have to ban gory subjects at dinnertime. I have two grandchildren, so I’ll give them a bath at the end of the day. That’s like my favorite wind-down. After I left the Times I was the primary caretaker of my granddaughter starting from when she was 9 months old. My daughter and son-in-law would leave for work way early in the morning so I would get her up and get her our of her crib, play with her, get her dressed, give her breakfast, do a little reading and then I would drive her to daycare. Even on my teaching days I was the person who picked her up at daycare, and when the weather was good we’d go to the playground. I loved all that. It came back to me, like a second nature. You know, I turned 65 in March and I’d like to think that the next decade will have a bigger quotient of family orientation. And also great work.