Named editor of Politico last week, Susan Glasser spoke by phone with former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson about the challenges faced by women in leadership roles. A lightly edited transcript of their conversation:
Jill Abramson: Susan, huge congratulations on being named to this very important and influential job. I hope it feels great
Susan Glasser: Thanks, Jill. I’m really excited.
Jill: I wanted to start out, because we have not really had an opportunity to talk between us, and you wrote, I thought, a very interesting and important piece right after I was fired … called “Editing While Female.” And you were writing broadly about some of the problems that women have encountered in our field of journalism, but you also wrote very personally about some of your experiences at The Washington Post, some negative experiences. And the question that I want to ask you is, why you have the guts to do this job when you wrote that piece, which focused so much on the difficulties of being a woman editor.
Susan: Well, I should say, first of all, why I’m so thrilled to be a rare thing these days, which is a woman leading a major news organization, and I think you and I both know that comes with the going-in awareness that I think I wrote in that piece: To be a woman in this kind of public life today, you basically have to have the skin of a rhinoceros. And it’s not surprising, perhaps, that many choose not to do that. And that’s especially true, of course, in Washington, where there’s such an incredible, overheated, partisan rhetoric. Absolutely everyone is convinced at all times that your news organization is out to get them, and then you layer on the fact that there are so very few similarly situated women in this circumstance, and there’s no question that anyone who takes on a job like this has to do so with her eyes wide open.
But the flipside is, that’s part of, in the end, my excitement about this, because I will say, I’m sure you had this experience, too, of having heard from literally hundreds of women in journalism, and many men, too, in the wake of the big national debate that was spurred by what happened to you this spring. And what I heard from so many people was, you know, somebody’s got to be out there doing this, and we recognize that there’s something wrong in the world when women have failed to make the gains that we all expected and anticipated that they would.
Jill: Right. I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to look at it, but the Nieman Foundation, which has the publication Nieman Reports and is an organization at Harvard that’s now headed by Ann Marie Lipinski, who used to be the top editor at the Chicago Tribune and is a great journalist … pretty much the whole well of their new issue is devoted to the issue of how few women are in leadership roles in newsrooms of various kinds. And, you know, I do think that’s an issue that is troubling. I don’t know what you think [but] I think, first and foremost, because the news media is supposed to be a lens through which the world understands what’s happening in the world. And, you know, if there are very few women thinking up the story ideas and thinking of the various angles that reporters should dig and write about, I think you may get a kind of one-size-fits-all view of what’s going on in the world.
Why do you think the lack of women in these jobs—and I should underscore that I’m the biggest celebrant of your taking this important post at Politico—but why do you think it’s important? Why is it important that there aren’t women in many leadership roles in our profession?
Susan: Well, you know, I think it has an impact, obviously, both internally in a way that these institutions are run, what they consider to be stories, what their perspective and context is, and also externally, when you’re looking at a publication with the mission of Politico or The New York Times, for that matter. I’m amazed by how persistent views of the kinds of stories that women gravitate toward would be; there’s a pronounced lack of women overall in leadership roles, but it’s especially true in the kinds of stories that both you and I tended to cover as reporters—which is, we both wrote about money and politics.
Jill: You were one of my most fearsome competitors when you were covering money and politics at the Post.
Susan: Well, you know, it’s a building block.
Jill: And I’m very jealous that you were also a very distinguished foreign correspondent, because that is a missing part of my journalistic résumé.
Susan: Well, you know, being a foreign correspondent, I think, is really invaluable experience for an editor in many ways. I was just saying to somebody—and this doesn’t have anything, I don’t think, to do with gender per se—but I was just saying to somebody the other day that, you know, one of the parts of the job of a foreign correspondent is to find your way around a checkpoint. And that’s kind of the job of an editor, too—to get around the checkpoints that others throw up for us, whether they’re inside our organizations or journalistically, you know, with our minders in the government. The foreign correspondent checkpoint version comes with dudes with AK-47s. So, in Washington, they just get mad at you and send nasty e-mails.
Jill: I know that you’re both excited and honored to be assuming the top editing role at Politico. And I have to ask you whether you feel—and I ask this because I will admit I definitely worried about this when I was named executive editor and became the first woman to have the job—I was very worried that I would let down, like, the “girls team,” that somehow I would fail and that that would be judged to be a broader shortcoming of women in the most important job in journalism. And I guess, in this case, what I was worried about in some ways came true, because I was fired, I believe, in an untimely fashion, after not that long; I had two-and-a-half years as executive editor. And I felt a lot of remorse immediately after I was fired. I felt like, “Oh, I’ve let women in The New York Times newsroom and in journalism down somehow.”
But the reaction both inside the Times—I’ve been deluged with such moving notes from many, many women in the Times newsroom, many younger women. In particular, the younger women in the newsroom actually started a club called “The Old Girls Club” after I was named [editor], and I had a fun time going out drinking with them and just believed in that power so much. But I guess as time has passed, I feel that they don’t feel I let them down. But do you feel a burden somehow? Do you fear letting down women in the profession if you don’t have a glorious run as the top editor at Politico?
Susan: I think it’s an important question. And really up until this point, I actually never did worry about something like that, and I’ve been really lucky in the interesting range of journalism jobs that I’ve had. And actually, taking on this role as editor of Politico is the first time that I really think that I did pause and say, am I really ready to put that rhino skin back on? But what are the potential consequences of failure? And then, you know, I just decided that’s just not who I am. And actually, by the way, that is why I wrote that piece in May, “Editing While Female,” for exactly that reason, Jill … I had actually been thinking about doing something like that before this happened to you, and then that happened and we had been in France visiting with our friend, Natalie Nougayrède, who was the editor of Le Monde and also left her job the same day.
Jill: I hate to interrupt you, but I feel like at this point I have to point out a huge irony of the present moment, at least for me, because Natalie invited me—she came and visited me at the Times shortly after she was elected to be the executive editor of Le Monde, and she was very excited to have the job—I guess it seems very ironic now to me, that she came and asked me for advice. But we were fired the same day, but she invited me months and months ago to participate and appear at Le Monde’s festival, which is happening this weekend.
And the bitter irony is I don’t think she is participating in any way, but other friends of mine at Le Monde, like, really pressed me to still come, and I’m going to be on what I think is a good panel with Paul Steiger and the editor of one of the Spanish newspapers. And I’m going, but I’m—and maybe you can think of it—I’m trying to think of the perfect either mordant joke or observation to make about how strange it is that, when I first decided to go to this conference, that I was invited by Natalie. You knew her probably better than I did, I think, but she so badly wanted me to come to this, and we ended up being fired on the same day. I don’t know, you can hold the thought and e-mail me something to say.
Susan: That is an incredible coincidence, and that’s how I felt at that time.
Jill: So, this is Saturday. I’m leaving for Paris on Friday. I figured, you know, we’re going to have a great panel talking about quality journalism in the future, and I feel I have a lot to say about that. So, I’m going!
Susan: Well, I think it’s terrific. And I think that’s the point, to me, is you have to engage and you have to not be silenced. And being brave is really, I think, an aspect of what all of this rare breed of women editors has had to be, because otherwise they wouldn’t have been able to sort of go along this pretty difficult, at times, path. And so, for me, I felt like there had been an element of being silenced and that it was the right thing to do, in the end, to speak out. And that’s why, although I have definitely for the first time in my life, some fear and anxiety around not wanting to fail or to sort of say, “See, that narrative is right about women or about you,” and feeling like that …
Jill: Susan, I feel very confident that you are going to be a big success in this job.
Susan: Well, the thing about Politico that really always attracted me from the very beginning—obviously, I’ve known and worked closely with both the founders and admired them so much: John Harris and Jim VandeHei were my colleagues at The Washington Post. I worked with Jim VandeHei all the way back at Roll Call newspaper when we were in our early 20s together. But the thing that I always have admired about Politico was that, unlike many news organizations that are trying so hard to innovate and do new things in this kind of start-up era, Politico has had a pretty clear vision for itself both editorially and as a business around its content and its subject rather than around its platform. It’s not chasing a general-interest fantasy, like, “Oh, gee, we’re going to just do cat videos now because that’s what’s going to get us some traffic. And we’ll just do some journalism as an aside, even though that’s not really what gets us any traffic.” And you and I both heard that from a lot of people.
Jill: Right. I mean, when you were saying that undertaking this job will take bravery, I think where bravery comes most into play is just that it’s such a challenging sort of business environment in which to try to do quality journalism and, I guess, our new concept of the future of in-depth reporting about politics and somehow, you know, attracting enough of a readership. I know Politico still actually is in print, but I think most readers are coming to Politico digitally, and how much of your time is going to be focused on the constant worrying about the business model?
Susan: I think that’s part of why I’m so excited, is that I think there is an unusual alignment between the business model and the journalism on this platform in a way that there isn’t, arguably, in some of the more general interest publications. I’ve seen that in the year since I came to Politico and started the magazine, that there is actually a business case for indispensable, high-quality, authoritative journalism around politics and policy and Washington in a way that monetizing general traffic around other kinds of stories there might not be. And so, from the beginning, I was always so excited about that, because I’ve never been in a place where the best stuff that you do is also often the highest-trafficked stuff, is also often the stuff that the business people are the most excited about. The editorial content around great coverage of Washington is also, in effect, the business model. I think that’s the opportunity of Politico, and that’s why I wanted to do it, basically. You and I know that. I mean, you did Legal Times. I worked at Roll Call when I was young. And both of those were sort of early, pre-digital era versions, in a way, of …
Jill: They were verticals … Well, Susan, all I have to say in kind of wrapping up is I loved being the executive editor of the Times. It was the honor of my life. It was a thrilling job. It was a difficult job in some ways. But I have no regrets, and I feel about you beginning this bigger role at Politico that you have a great news [gut]. I see that already in Politico Magazine. I saw it at Foreign Policy. I saw it when I was competing against you on money and politics. And you’re going to be great, but I want you to promise me to one thing—that you will trust that gut.
Susan: That’s great advice. And you know, when I wake up at 4 o’clock in the morning anxious, I’ll try to remember it.
Jill: All right. I wish you only the best.
Susan: Well, thank you so much, Jill, and it’s great to talk to you.