Thursday, December 14, 2017
Business

While in Tampa, former New York Times editor Jill Abramson talks media and politics

Jill Abramson is probably as famous for being hired as the first female executive editor of the New York Times as she is for being fired from the job.

But Abramson, who is, among other things, an author and a lecturer teaching nonfiction narrative writing at Harvard University, has used her high-profile dismissal from the newspaper in 2014 as an opportunity to talk about the news industry and gender inequality in the corporate world.

Abramson joined the New York Times in 1997, where she was the first woman to serve as Washington bureau chief and later, managing editor. She previously worked as an investigative reporter and deputy bureau chief at the Wall Street Journal.

Abramson was among a star-studded lineup of speakers at the first Women's Conference of Florida, which drew more than 800 attendees from around the state to the Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina on Friday.

She spoke with the Tampa Bay Times before her fireside chat moderated by Joni James, CEO of the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership and former journalist with the Times.

After your departure from the New York Times, you said you were working on a new journalism startup that got media attention when you said it would pay $100,000 advances to journalists. How's that going?

That is a little stalled at the moment. I worry at this point I don't have the time to do it. It was going to be the focus of my work, but now I have a full load with teaching at Harvard, which I love doing. I'm teaching two courses each semester next year. I have signed up to write a book about the tumult in our profession and where it's heading. I write a political column for the Guardian and I'm a new grandma. My daughter is a surgeon married to a surgeon and they live in Boston. During the school year I live with them to be an extra pair of hands and heart. So I'm pretty booked.

The Tampa Bay Times recently bought its competitor, the Tampa Tribune. We're not the first region to go from two daily papers to one. What do you think is the future for local news?

Regional newspapers have been hurt worst of all. And in Florida, there are several good newspapers. Count me as very worried about the narrowing of local and regional coverage. The duty of our profession is to hold the powerful accountable. Journalism can be very difficult. It takes time, it's expensive. There's no one answer.

But there are markets that are doing worse. For some time, cities like Detroit and New Orleans shrunk to one paper and weren't even publishing every day. One option is to follow the Texas Tribune, which is an organization I admire, which dealt with the atrophy of coverage on the state legislature by dedicating themselves completely to the coverage of politics and policy in Texas. They're a nonprofit. Florida is full of wealthy people, I would like to think they would decide to invest and support similar efforts here. I wouldn't suggest starting a newspaper now but maybe a robust digital news organization that's dedicated to state and local government, similar to what you already do with PolitiFact.

What are the biggest challenges facing the news industry today?

There are a lot of great things trying to replace the loss of investigative reporting power, like ProPublica and the Marshall Project, which are nonprofits. They're doing important work and making sure the public understands that the work is in the public's interest in one way or another. But this isn't the same world as when I entered journalism. It was such a small circle then but now it's so splintered with blogs and other online media. With Facebook and Twitter, everyone can be a journalist. It's hard for there to collective action to improve the image of the media now. It's too big and has too many parts.

Also, the public has such low esteem for the news media right now. They don't see us reporting accurately or fairly and that has to be turned around somehow. But like Thomas Jefferson said, "were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."

What do you see as the future of news media?

I think it's very interesting to watch new digital media companies like Buzzfeed and Vice move into the serious news space. They're doing high-quality work. Whether they could step in tomorrow and replace older legacy media like the New York Times or the Washington Post, which are traditionally known for breaking big stories, I don't know, but they want to do good work.

In your political column for the Guardian, you've written in support of Hillary Clinton. What do you think about the election this year?

There's still a double standard applied to women in power. They're judged much more on personal terms, which is the way Hillary has been covered over the years. The higher a woman climbs, her likability comes down, but for men, that doesn't happen. The same qualities to women are being too ambitious or shrill are seen in men as leaderly. And as long as that's the world, it's not equal. I do think it's great that we might have a woman president, and not just to have a woman, but Hillary Clinton, who is the most prepared nominee in either party. I think it's now or never.

Contact Justine Griffin at [email protected] Follow @SunBizGriffin.

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