While the media industry faces many critical challenges these days, Jill Abramson and Nancy Gibbs—who previously held the top editorial positions at The New York Times and Time magazine, respectively—remain hopeful. “I’m always an optimist about our profession,” says Abramson. “You couldn’t go on if you weren’t.”
This optimism was evident when the pair spoke in conversation with curator Ann Marie Lipinski at the Nieman Foundation in November the day following the midterm elections. With results still rolling in from many states, Abramson and Gibbs were looking for better reporting on both voters and candidates going forward. And, while they believed some of the media’s mistakes from 2016 were repeated in coverage leading up to the midterms—too much of an obsession with Trump, a continued addiction with polls at many outlets, too much partisan cheerleading on cable networks—they also agreed there were significant improvements in some areas, such as in increased willingness to call out Trump’s false statements directly in headlines.
Both Abramson and Gibbs were the first (and, so far, only) women to lead their former publications. Abramson worked at The New York Times for 17 years, serving as Washington bureau chief and then managing editor before assuming the role of executive editor, a position she held from 2011 to 2014, when she was fired. Currently a political columnist for The Guardian, Abramson also teaches writing in Harvard’s English department and is the author of three books. Her fourth, “Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts”—to be published by Simon & Schuster in February—is a definitive report on disruption in the news industry over the past decade, examining BuzzFeed, Vice, The New York Times, and The Washington Post.
Gibbs served as editor in chief of Time from 2013 through September 2017 after spending three decades at the magazine and having written more than 175 cover stories. Gibbs is Time’s editor at large and the visiting Edward R. Murrow Professor of Practice of Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School. She is the co-author, with Michael Duffy, of two presidential histories.
During their talk at the Nieman Foundation, Abramson and Gibbs discussed the double standard for women leaders, the importance of diversity, how to rebuild trust with audiences, and more. Edited excerpts:
On Trump’s tweets
Nancy Gibbs: With Twitter we have this extraordinary window into what the president is thinking. You never can know what he really is thinking but for all the attention paid to how much he lies, we also have to pay attention to how much he tells the truth that another politician would not tell. Right after the synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh, he tweeted that this was a tragedy because of all the Republican momentum being lost in the midterm races. One imagines that a great many politicians, if they had had that thought, would not have considered expressing it, but he did. There are any number of examples of where he says something that I could only imagine he’s saying because it is what he really thinks.
Jill Abramson: Twitter is worth a bit of our attention because not only is it President Trump’s favored mode of pushing us out of the picture and speaking directly to people, it’s also where political reporting has moved. While the hollowing out of local and regional newsrooms everywhere is a big factor, the compulsion of every political reporter I know to break something on Twitter, and the constant looking at Twitter—I’m not saying that important political news does not break on Twitter—but that instantaneous pace of everything cuts against in many ways the kinds of stories that I love and see too few of.
On Trump, lying, and racism
Gibbs: The reason I am very, very wary about calling the president a liar is that it requires knowing what the president actually knows and believes. There are any number of things that this president says that are factually untrue that you can point out, including the size of the crowd at his inauguration. It is impossible to come away certain that the president is lying about his inaugural crowd size. He may actually believe that his crowd was bigger. The reason this is important is because what presidents believe matters. We’ve gone to war because of what presidents believe. We have ended wars because of what presidents believe.
Abramson: I’m not as conservative. I was really happy during the campaign when the Times put “lie” in a front‑page headline. I know Marty Baron, the editor of The Washington Post, would agree with Nancy for the same reason, that you need to know what’s in someone’s head. I don’t think so. I think this is purposeful, strategic lying by the president for clear political reasons. He’s a demagogue. I think he is a racist because he is approving things like the outrageous caravan ad, which is straight out of the Willie Horton playbook. That was racist. The people who created that ad are looking to incite people to respond to racist caricatures. I foolishly thought our country had achieved the consensus that we don’t tolerate that.
Gibbs: It does feel like we’ll look back on this period of time and say that journalism shifted in some way, that we changed the rhetoric, we changed the rules. We either did it right or we made a mistake. You have international [journalists] who have confronted this for a long time. For us, it’s a little bit new. I just can feel us wrestling with it. As a profession, there’s a lot of disagreement about it at the moment.
On the double standard for women leaders
Abramson: I was part of that. There’s study after study [about] women and leadership and the double standard. Harvard Business School has done one; there are a zillion. There’s something about a woman at the top, like Hillary trying to become president. For a man in charge, likeability rises. For a woman—there’s just all this data—it descends. I could feel that in the newsroom. I could feel it eroding. Qualities that I have, like I’m blonde and, though I’m positive I never talked to reporters in a way that was unusual for an editor, I was perceived as typically too aggressive and described as pushy. Those same qualities are seen as leaderly in men according to all these studies. I’d be remiss not to point out that Nancy is a prime example of someone who got to the top and succeeded. I never once heard her called a bitch. You had some kind of management style that really let you succeed over a long period of time.
On the importance of diversity for building trust
Gibbs: There is a case to be made for greater transparency and trying to help people understand things that we take for granted about how we vet sources and how we decide when a story has met its burden of proof and how we decide what to cover and what not to cover.
Also, the issue of diversity in newsrooms is a significant one. It’s a classic case where news organizations would be the first to say how committed they are to principles of diversity and inclusion and being representative of the country that we’re covering, and yet a newsroom census of major news organizations reveals the remarkable uniformity of where people went to school, where they live, what life experiences they have, leaving aside the obvious lack of ethnic, gender, and religious diversity.
The lack of diversity of lived experiences of people who grew up in the most rural areas or who have ever experienced poverty or have served on active duty in the military—you can name a million things that are fundamental to the fabric of the country and yet are not part of the experience of most reporters who are making coverage decisions.
I think that there is a vicious circle of whether or not we’re always able to look in the right places and ask the right questions. That isn’t about bias. That’s just about we all have blind spots. We all have things that we just aren’t sufficiently attuned to because they are outside of our experience.
I think there’s much more acknowledgment of that now and effort to find ways to redress it. But we also all know that parachuting reporters into Trump country to write anthropological pieces and then going back to the same set of zip codes—this is even more of a problem with digital media where the concentration of outlets is in a very few zip codes that are deep blue—is even more of a challenge to diversity. I’m not sure that the trust problem is going to be solved independent of solving the diversity problem.
Abramson: I think it also can’t be solved without recognizing how much technology has influenced what people see as news. You all know the expression the filter bubble, and the force of Facebook’s News Feed is they want you to stay on Facebook forever. The way the algorithm works is it usually is going to reflect some kind of polarization where people are only seeing the information that they already agree with.
On sexism in journalism
Gibbs: I, to this day, can’t tell how much the problem of the absence of women in leadership in journalism is a sexism problem versus a more complicated set of reasons about whether women are attracted to journalism in the first place.
One of the things I’m particularly concerned about is the impact of the harassment and physical threats that women are subject to. This is another reason to quit Twitter. You just don’t want to see what people have to say about anything that you write.
There are studies that have been done that suggest female journalists, particularly female reporters overseas, are leaving journalism because of the amount of harassment and abuse that they’re getting. That’s obviously an intense expression of sexism, but it isn’t necessarily within the industry. It is something that they are exposed to and are vulnerable to coming from the public that targets them because of being in the profession.
Abramson: [Women] need to be everywhere [in the newsroom]. That’s what is so important about diversity; if the people in the editorial ranks, the people who are deciding what stories should we be doing—what if they’re all white men? You’re going to have a very skewed palette of journalism.
Gibbs: There’s a remarkable lack of research and data about journalism as an industry compared to a lot of industries, because we typically don’t cooperate with scholars and researchers. People have done important research measuring numbers of female bylines, how many women are quoted in stories. You can analyze the content. But if we’re trying to figure out issues about promotion and retention of women in newsrooms, how do we even get that data and research and do this empirically, and get newsrooms to recognize this as a significant enough problem that they’re willing to open up a bit and talk to us about what’s happening in there.
On women with managerial aspirations
Gibbs: I think one thing that has made this more challenging today is that however you come into journalism—through print or through television, the radio, or a website—people have to now be so versatile and have such a broad understanding of the different ingredients of building an audience and understanding promotion on social platforms. Understanding when a story is best told as a video or as an infographic or as a podcast.
The need to be fluent in so many languages of storytelling in order to be successful is a dramatic change from earlier generations of editors. The storytelling tools available to us [now] are extraordinary, but it requires that you have expertise or at least some understanding to be able to recognize talent and see opportunities across such a wide range.[I suggest] moonlighting within your news organization and shadowing a video producer or shadowing the social media team. Getting to know the business side and what their landscape looks like. Trying to build an understanding of how all the pieces fit together, because the pieces are more complex and they fit together in more intricate ways.
Successful organizations are ones that are thinking creatively about new ways of telling stories. That often means thinking about ways of opening new revenue streams. Ways to do what they do well for new audiences, and have a greater impact in places that they would not have reached before. That is a real key to success in reaching the higher ranks.
On the visual future
Gibbs: We all can tell how much storytelling, narrative, and information of all kinds and from all places is becoming visual rather than text‑based. The consumption of images and of video is so much more natural as the automatic way of learning, sharing, telling your friends what you’re doing, or finding out what’s happening in the world. This is a generational fact, and I think there’s no way that news organizations are going to be able to escape it, whether their instinct is to be multimedia or not.
This is what their audiences are going to look for and respond to and consume. This is coming from someone who loves language and the written word, but the ability to tell amazing stories in video is growing so remarkably and the sheer number of photographs being taken, the extent to which communication is becoming visual, is one of the extraordinary developments of our time.
It’s the explosive volume and the creation of content that is visual that is going to change the way we see the world, the way we learn news, the way we consume stories. It’s going to have a whole different kind of translation system in our brains.