The years that Jill Abramson was executive editor of The New York Times, 2011 to 2014, were also years of profound crisis for newspapers, as Google, Facebook, and a passel of flashy digital brands ate more and more of their lunch. Abramson, the first and only woman to hold that position, was as digital-savvy as anyone born in 1954 could expect to be. But the business imperatives of the moment could be exasperating, especially for an old-school journalist like Abramson, who could tend toward exasperation.
One day, during a stuffy luncheon with several top Times executives, Abramson decided she’d had enough. Times C.E.O. Mark Thompson said he expected the newsroom to come up with additional ideas for revenue-generating products. “If that’s what you expect,” she snapped, “you have the wrong executive editor.” As Abramson describes in her new book, Merchants of Truth, which is on pre-order now via Simon & Shuster, the retort “had flown out of my mouth before I could edit either its substance or its tone. As I spoke, the uniformed waiter serving us spilled the water he was pouring.”
Abramson had diligently done her homework, spending six months as a digital embed, beginning the print-digital integration of the newsroom, and throwing her support behind monetizable mobile apps. But in hindsight, she recognizes that her priorities as executive editor weren’t keeping pace with how rapidly the media was evolving. “I was still very much focused on the written word,” she told me during a recent interview.
In May of 2014, Abramson was fired in the midst of an epicly scrutinized management clash, one in which digital turmoil supplied the backdrop but not the central issue. Later that year, she began working on the book that would become Merchants of Truth. It would be a story about the seismic changes reshaping the industry, focusing on four specific news organizations as they navigated the upheaval.
At the time, it had begun to feel as if the future belonged to new-media unicorns like BuzzFeed and Vice, with their mountains of cash, astronomical web traffic, and putative sex appeal among the 30-and-under set. Legacy players like the Times and The Washington Post, to be fair, had begun to get back into the game. Though the Times was still struggling with steep ad declines and buyouts during Abramson’s tenure, digital subscriptions were climbing at a rapid clip—they would hit the million mark in 2015—and the Times was finally treating the digital universe with the seriousness it deserved. The Post, meanwhile, was awash in deep investment and technological urgency thanks to its new patron saint, Jeff Bezos, whose ownership could theoretically bankroll the Post in perpetuity whether or not he was serious about making the place a successful business. Even so, the overall mood was still mostly one of survival rather than real prosperity.
Four years later, that script seems to have been turned on its head. The Times and the Post, largely thanks to the endless shenanigans playing out at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, are in the midst of an exhilarating journalistic renaissance, riding high on a renewed sense of mission and purpose, and benefitting from a so-called Trump bump that has produced a new generation of news addicts and juiced their subscription dollars. At the same time, while BuzzFeed and Vice have matured into establishment behemoths, the past two years have brought well-publicized revenue struggles that left many observers skeptical of whether they’ll live up to their outsized valuations. Abramson’s book is arriving at a moment when the legacy news media has rekindled its mojo, and the industry’s once breathlessly-hyped digital darlings are grappling with a reality check.
“That’s the narrative I wound up on, one that charts the switching of hats,” Abramson told me. For BuzzFeed and Vice, she said, finding exits will be “very difficult, because both have absurdly large valuations, and in the business climate that exists now, I think they’re too expensive for people to acquire. They do produce news coverage of value, so I’m rooting for them, but the feeling is definitely that winter is here.” Then again, Abramson added a caveat about the Times and the Post: “What happens when Trump isn’t around to make people so interested in the news?”
Merchants of Truth got its own inadvertent Trump Bump, well ahead of its February 5 publication date. In early January, Fox News media columnist Howard Kurtz published an article highlighting a brief passage in which Abramson describes the Times’s news pages as “unmistakably anti-trump. … Some headlines contained raw opinion, as did some of the stories that were labeled as news analysis.” They were a mere two sentences in a more than 400-page tome, and indeed, Abramson devotes much more space to critically assessing the Times’s coverage of Hillary Clinton. Nevertheless, right-leaning journalists giddily seized on the remarks, which the pro-Trump crowd took as proof that The Failing New York Times had America’s 45th president in its crosshairs. In a statement to media reporters, Abramson accused Kurtz of taking the passage out of context and trying to “Foxify” her book. Naturally, the hubbub found its way into Trump’s Twitter feed: “Ms. Abramson is 100% correct. Horrible and totally dishonest reporting on almost everything they write. Hence the term Fake News, Enemy of the People, and Opposition Party!” Abramson shot back at the commander in chief: “Anyone who reads my book … will find I revere @nytimes and praise its tough coverage of you.” When I asked Abramson about the flurry of controversy, she said she was concerned it had created an impression that Merchants of Truth is primarily a negative portrayal of her former employer. “I don’t want the reading public to think that this is either a memoir or a book about the Times,” she told me.
That said, Times Kremlinologists will surely devour the three chapters devoted to the institution, especially the pages in which Abramson chronicles the tensions that preceded her termination by then-publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. “It was hard to revisit,” Abramson said. “I’m not at all bitter towards the Times. I still revere it, and I knew that I had created some of my own problems.” She boils down a scathing performance review from Sulzberger as, “People think you’re a bitch,” and writes about retaining an executive coach to help her with a lack of management experience that she knew was ruffling feathers on her masthead. As for the event that ultimately precipitated her firing—she had zeroed in on hiring The Guardian’s Janine Gibson as a digitally-focused co-managing editor equal to Dean Baquet without first consulting Baquet, who learned about the offer during an awkward lunch with Gibson—Abramson claims that Thompson had suggested that she lead Baquet to believe she was considering a number of people for the role. “I followed the script,” she writes, “knowing that it was wrong to mislead Baquet, but also wanting to avoid more angry confrontations. … I assumed Thompson, who has denied encouraging me to obfuscate, was briefing Sulzberger.” (Baquet, who succeeded Abramson and is now in his fourth year running the newsroom, reportedly told Sulzberger that it was either her or him, and Sulzberger chose him.)
As for the book’s other three subjects, the candy is no less plentiful. The chapters recounting the origins of BuzzFeed and Vice are rich in color that feels worlds away from the companies’ contemporary sheen—cockroach-infested computers at BuzzFeed’s early hole-in-the-wall offices in Chinatown; a long since forgotten controversy, back when Vice was still just a hipster print magazine, in which the seminal ‘90s riot grrrl band Bratmobile refused to grant an interview because of Vice’s sexist reputation. Abramson goes on to chronicle the impressive growth and evolution of both companies, and she credits their journalistic achievements, siding with BuzzFeed in its decision to publish the Trump dossier, and lavishing praise on Vice’s gripping documentary of White Nationalists in Charlottesville. On the other hand, she highlights a lack of institutional standards at both outlets that led to embarrassing missteps, from BuzzFeed’s deletion of advertiser-averse posts to the mountain of H.R. issues that would land Vice in the annals of #MeToo infamy. The book also charts the Post’s Bezos-led turnaround from tragically diminished Beltway paper of record to resurgent national media powerhouse. In one previously unreported scene, Watergate legend Bob Woodward presents the Amazon boss with a list of 14 pointers during a private breakfast shortly before Bezos’s first town hall with Post employees, after he’d struck a deal to buy the paper from the Graham family for $250 million. Item no. 1: “The Grahams never asked enough of people. Ask for more.”
I asked Abramson what she now understands about digital media, after four years working on her book, that she didn’t comprehend back when she was the editor of the Times. The first thing on her list: “That being digital-first makes perfect sense. I didn’t know then that it was incredibly silly to husband stories for publication in the next day’s paper. I assumed that’s where they’d have the biggest impact, and that was wrong.” I also asked her if writing the book has made her feel better or worse about the future of journalism. “Better,” she said. Why? “Because so much work of quality is being done, and it’s our only hope at this moment where we have a president who does not believe in the First Amendment.”
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