As she was finishing her new book about the future of the news business, Merchants of Truth, Jill Abramson was calling BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti constantly.
“I called him seriously by the week until my galley couldn’t be changed anymore,” she recalled on the latest episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka. She asked, “‘Are you sure your commitment to news is real and will outlast the publication of my book?’ ... For a while, it looked like winter is coming. And now, winter clearly is here for digital news operations.”
Abramson told Recode’s Peter Kafka that she had noticed a “glimmer” of the troubles that led to BuzzFeed’s recent decision to lay off 15 percent of its staff, or about 200 people. For the book, in which she profiles the New York Times, Washington Post, Vice, and BuzzFeed, she chronicled the site’s decision to “pivot to video,” emphasizing its rising YouTube and Facebook Video stars rather than traditional news coverage.
On the new podcast, she also discussed the still-unfolding crisis in local news; Gannett, which owns more than 1,000 newspapers, laid off 400 of its employees the same day that BuzzFeed announced its cuts. Abramson said audiences trust local media more than national media, and she fears that tech giants taking over the media landscape don’t fully understand that “journalism is fundamental to saving democracy.”
“The Washington Post has already been acquired by big [tech],” she said. “Netflix and Apple are jumping into news. It may be that we just have behemoth news companies, where news is a relatively small part of the business. And that worries me.”
You can listen to Recode Media wherever you get your podcasts — including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts, and Overcast.
Below, we’ve shared a lightly edited full transcript of Peter’s conversation with Jill.
Peter Kafka: This is Recode Media with Peter Kafka, that is me, I’m part of the Vox Media Podcast Network, here in New York City, talking with Jill Abramson, former executive editor of the New York Times. Now she’s got a great new book called Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts.
Jill Abramson: Thank you.
This is a great book. If you listen to this podcast, as you’re doing right now, you will like this book because this is about technology, media, their collision, what that means for journalism. You spend the book focused on four companies in particular: the New York Times, which you used to run, the Washington Post — I was going to say Vox — Vice, and BuzzFeed. Why did you pick those four companies to focus on?
I picked those four because they were very much ascendent at the point I began researching the book and hanging out.
This is four-ish, five-ish years ago?
Yeah, this is right at the end of 2014, beginning of ’15.
When you had time on your hands.
I didn’t, actually.
Yeah, but no, it was after I was removed from my job at the Times in May of 2014 and I immediately signed up to do a few things, including teaching journalism classes at Harvard. Which is my alma mater.
But it isn’t really a question of whether I had time on my hands. At the point I was gone from the Times, I was left with this just insatiable curiosity about the new digital news players. And Arthur Greg Sulzberger had just written “The Innovation Report,” and my sense was that it dripped with a fair amount of envy for both BuzzFeed and Vice, especially because of ... They were ahead of the Times in an area called audience development.
This was an internal memo created by AG Sulzberger, who now is the publisher of the Times, explaining how the Times should do better in the new digital landscape and how to not get HuffPo’d by the HuffPo, etc.
That’s a great way to phrase it that, yup.
In the book you describe that memo as an “epic fail” for you personally. Was it ...
I felt that it was.
Why was that?
Because as managing editor, which I was at the Times for eight years, my biggest project was uniting the Times’ news room so that there wasn’t something we call “The Web Newsroom,” and then the newsroom-newsroom. Which had ...
Which was a standard sort of cleavage for a long time at publications.
Yeah, but it created duplication, and my sense was that we were rapidly becoming a digital-first news organization and combining the two newsrooms was difficult. There was still a lot of kind of cultural opposition or even snobbery that some of the ...
… non-web newsroom people had. And it was a gargantuan piece of work that I felt like wasn’t recognized at all in the report.
So you felt like you had done all this work to bring the Times into the modern era.
I thought I was the, that was my signature, I was going to be the editor that brought the New York Times ...
You were the person who ran the Times, who got digital, and said, “You don’t get digital, actually, we’re way behind.” Kind of the nature of digital right? You keep up and you’re on top of it, and then you’re behind.
Right, there’s always something new.
I want to talk to you about all the publications that you’ve spent time with.
Should I tell you about why the Times and the Post?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Please. Please.
I mean, the Times because from the inside I had the best ringside seat ever to see how dislocating and exciting going digital was. And during my tenure, the Times was in the deepest financial trouble it had been in, in decades. The adjustment was hard. And I thought, the strength, and I thought that the Post was doing well at that point, which was the beginning of 2015. Bezos had taken over.
He had just shown up, yeah.
I thought their apps were really great to use and their website had a great user experience. So I was interested in them because of the changeover in ownership, for one. Like the Times, it was one of the great traditional news companies owned by a great newspaper family, the Grahams, and that had stopped.
And I just thought it would be really interesting to take two so-called old media and two new media. I was copying David Halberstam’s structure for a book he wrote in 1979 — well, it was published in ’79 — called The Powers that Be, which was a book that chronicled the news media at the height of power.
And you embed yourself, you were already embedded in the Times, so you didn’t need to embed yourself there.
But you got a lot of access from, particularly BuzzFeed, it looks like you spent a lot of time there.
Maybe a little less so at Vice and the Post, but you were deep in there.
That would be true, although Vice let me interview anybody I requested.
At that time they were pretty open, they were, what’s it, they were better than open, they were exuberant.
They were exuberant, yes. They had just started Viceland, the cable channel, and I was always scratching my head about that. Because in my book I really go deep on the business models that all of these places had and I didn’t really see where running programming on a cable channel that had been History II was going to really push Vice into a new sphere.
Yeah, we asked them about it and they basically said, “We’re getting paid.”
And then some more bluster. And I think actually, not only has it not worked out, that it’s been devastating because you can sort of spin the story talking about digital stuff for quite some time, but if you, had someone like Jeff Bewkes or Murdoch might buy into it. But if you see a 0.0 for Viceland and you know what that means in Nielsen terms, it’s very hard to make that case.
Let me ask you about BuzzFeed in particular, because there’s news as we’re recording this.
BuzzFeed announced layoffs, there’s 1,000 total layoffs across the media landscape this week, they’ll be a week old by the time you’re getting it. Today in particular, we have the first real cuts in Buzzfeed News. Buzzfeed News had been spared of downsizing in prior cuts.
Right, they lost their national security team.
Yeah. So you’re deep in BuzzFeed, you’re watching them very closely for several years, did you see these cuts coming?
The glimmer of them, certainly towards the end of my reporting, because at that point, Jonah Peretti, the founder, had moved to LA. BuzzFeed was operating what was to my eyes — because I spent a week there — a mini-Paramount Pictures but for video. And so they were making the quirk ...
Acres of warehouses, like film studios.
Exactly, and these young stars, some of whom had been just web producers for BuzzFeed, being recognized on the street by young people. I mean, Eugene of “Try Guys” is like a rockstar to a young cohort. So they were already shifting sort of where their financial emphasis was and making — you and I probably both hate all of the industry cliches — but they were making the pivot to video.
Yeah, they were going hard into video, the news operation ...
So that was a glimmer, that old model that was so successful in the beginning maybe wasn’t. And then the news was hived off as a separate thing.
Right, that was the way to sort of solve the tension between Ben Smith and Ze Frank, and we talked I think to most of them at this point about that. And basically the news operation was really big, cost a lot of money, won a lot of awards, did great, some great journalism. Didn’t make any money, lost money.
Lost money, for sure.
But for a long time Jonah Peretti said, “I like it. I like it, I believe in it.”
Peter, I called him seriously by the week until my galley couldn’t be changed anymore, “Are you sure your commitment to news is real and will outlast the publication of my book?”
And by the way, I’m sure if he was in the room today he’d say, “My commitment to news is real.”
Yeah I know, he would.
But it has to get smaller. The Times has had layoffs in their editorial department.
Yeah, and he in this year is facing what ... For a while, it looked like winter is coming. And now, winter clearly is here for digital news operations.
It’s kind of chilly in this room.
This is, we’re a digital news operation. We’re okay though.
The lights are on.
You, like BuzzFeed, got that — it was a while ago now — but that big investment from Comcast.
Money doesn’t stay in the bank forever.
Yeah, for sure.
Especially if you spend it quickly. But I did want to ask you about sort of reporting on a book like this where stuff is moving. I guess it’s the nature of any book, but when you’re reporting on news operations, and the thesis of your book is these things are all in flux and it’s an interesting time, how do you try to, we can make this a little process-y, but how do you sort of try to give yourself as much room as possible to allow for major news at BuzzFeed that you want to squeeze into the book? You’re saying you were calling up Jonah until ...
Yeah, until the last minute.
So literally like I guess a couple weeks ago? Months ago?
Like two, maybe two months ago.
Yeah. So is there a temptation to go, “Oh man, I got to add a new chapter on this or that.”
Not chapters but information. And I did.
How do you balance that with going, “I want this to be valuable to someone reading it five years from now or two years from now”?
I think you make it valuable and immutable by focusing on the core important things that will always be really interesting, and to me, that’s always history and the story of people. I don’t want to brag on my book, but I think, we’re talking about BuzzFeed and Vice, just the characters and the foundation stories of those two companies. And then, their impact on the news. They both have a lot of impact.
So I know a lot of their history, I report on this stuff, I know these guys, I’ve talked to them, they’ve been on the podcast, etc. There was still great stuff there that I hadn’t seen before.
And they’re fascinating people.
They’re colorful characters and there’s important stuff in the book and there’s juicy stuff in the book.
Yeah, a lot of it’s about you, too.
So I was not really that worried. I would say in some ways my biggest worry in terms of staying current with very important material was Facebook.
Right, and I was reading the Facebook chapter again last night and you’ve got stuff there that goes up through the summer. Up through the, past Cambridge Analytica, so.
But, right, all that I had to go back and add and felt the story of the power of the algorithm and Facebook becoming what I think is the world’s biggest publisher, that that wasn’t enough. That you had to include all of the ... You know, I already was onto the Russian fake news sites, but these breaches of people’s, user’s confidentiality. And hiring a bare-knuckles oppo firm to go up against Facebook critics. I mean, that all is really important.
I was going to ask you to do armchair Times editor later, but I’ll ask you now. I think the Times has done mostly really great reporting on Facebook. They’ve obviously turned the lens on them this year. Facebook — it’s been reported and I’ve talked to them — they’re sort of confused about why this is happening.
I have talked to them too.
Yeah, and you would get that sense of confusion from them, and defensiveness?
I get, I wouldn’t say confusion. I think that there are executives and people who work there who think the Times is out to get them, that’s what I heard. So that’s defensiveness.
Do you think they’re right, that the Times is out to get them? I’m giving you a big fat softball here, but I want to hear your answer.
Right, my answer is no. Because I helped run a lot of big running stories about companies and countries and what you do, it’s just the old Watergate rule, when you got a great story, you stay on it and follow it.
Put your teeth in, you keep going.
And if you keep discovering fascinating and important information for your readers and audience to know, you’ve got to publish. So, there have been a lot of stories and more stories about Facebook certainly in their tech coverage than anyone. Deep, deep investigations, but that’s how a big story should go.
Do you think if you were running the Times you would have got to Facebook sooner? Or was it something that until the election, it didn’t really crystallize for you yourself as like, “Oh, this is a giant story.”
No, I mean it had already crystallized for me that it was a giant story when I was still at the Times and I can remember, I wish I remember the year, but having a hiring conversation with Jenna Wortham and she ...
Star Times reporter.
Yeah, just a great podcaster.
A great person, but she really lit a fire under me, and, you know, we grew the technology group. It’s much bigger now.
But, it’s funny, at the Times — and this may be too in the weeds — but technology was covered as just an eddy and sidelight of business, and what technology is is covering life.
You sound like you work at Recode now.
And you know, it just ... So naturally, their coverage of tech grew. And I think at some point, I think they’re not going to even call the reporters who focus on it “the tech group.”
Yeah. But no, there was a sort of a technology, it was a subset of business, it was almost a regional story. Go way back, I can remember reading stories in the Times when they would say, “Well, Intel has a new chip and it’s this much faster than the old chip,” and that would be a story.
Right. Well, you know. Facebook becoming a big deal, the start of that was when they launched the News Feed.
And that happened to be about the same time as the iPhone went on sale, and for my book’s narrative spine, that’s really where it begins because it was also close to the financial crisis which compounded all of the endemic financial problems that newspapers were dealing with.
Right. Media companies that were rickety are now much weaker and now you’ve got a phone in your hand that can replace a lot of ...
Right, exactly. And BuzzFeed was built on Facebook’s back. And Vice, in my book, I write a lot about how Vice was built on YouTube’s back.
So, it’s sort of 2017 back to 2007
We were talking off-air, before we got started, about the book tour and how it started earlier than you thought it would in response, basically, to criticism the book had gotten before it even showed up on anyone’s shelves. I think there’s two spines of criticism, to use your metaphor. One is mostly on Twitter saying, “You got some facts wrong.” I’ll let you litigate that with your Twitter people.
The other is, “Jill Abramson doesn’t like the Internet. She doesn’t like digital media. She’s sneering at this stuff.” And that’s sort of the form of some of the original Twitter criticism, I think, too. There’s a New Republic story where he says some of the sections where you’re talking about BuzzFeed and Vice read, “Like Abramson is speaking from a place of ill-informed bitterness of her print’s loss of supremacy.” Jill, are you bitter?
No, and you know, I am an acolyte of Clay Shirky’s, and in his fantastic article about newspapers dying, his conclusion was, “You just have to stop mourning and focus on there’s a human need for great storytelling and reliable information. And wherever it’s distributed, it’s great.” And just stop it. And I’ve believed that since probably before he wrote that article, which was a long, long time ago. So it’s a ...
To be clear, you’re not just talking about whether the Times is delivered to your doorstep or to an app, you’re talking about whether it comes from some person on the Internet you’ve never heard of versus an upstart versus the Times. If they’re good and fact-checked and verified, you’re happy with it?
Obviously you are.
And, you’ve read the book. I really don’t think it has that tone.
I was, I will say, I got the book and went right to the stuff. The initial complaint was about someone who worked at Vice News who is upset with the way you portrayed her. When I read the Twitter stuff, I thought, “Oh, this is Jill Abramson sneering at the people at Vice.” But you read the chapter, and you’re not. You’re kind of admiring at how cool they are, you definitely ...
And also admiring of their journalism.
Yeah, and you have real criticisms of Shane Smith and some of the misogyny there, but you, taking Vice seriously, that’s why you’re writing about it. And then BuzzFeed, in particular I think, you have real admiration for a lot of the journalism they’re doing for Ben Smith. You can just sort of, it comes off the page. And I was a little, I just figured, “Oh there’s going to be a dichotomy where you’ve got the old guys, who Jill Abramson’s on the side of, and here’s the young sort of callow upstarts, and how’s it going to work out?” But you take them very seriously on their merits.
No, and to me, what I loved about the narrative spine of this story is that at first, BuzzFeed and Vice are really doing content, then event[ually] real news.
They’re doing Content with a capital C, not news.
Yeah, and Jonah Peretti described his audience as the bored-at-work network.
Which I love. And at the point I started reporting, both Vice and BuzzFeed had jumped into news. And I thought Vice’s weekly show on HBO was really sort of addictive and informative.
And BuzzFeed’s site I looked at every morning and they always had kind of an interesting, hard-news story that I hadn’t seen anywhere else. And I recommended — in terms of sneering — I recommended people to both companies who were hired while I was working on the book.
Because I thought they were fascinating and it looked like fun and interesting to be in their newsrooms.
I think it would be easy to discount both those organizations for a while because even when Vice did journalism, it was a lot of stunt journalism. It was sending Dennis Rodman to North Korea. And I, for a long time, thought that what BuzzFeed was doing was the HuffPost playbook, which is you get a lot of volume, you don’t publish a lot of stuff that’s great, and then because you want to be taken more seriously, you hire a handful of people from the Times or places like that, but you don’t really intend to create a news organization. You intend to sort of show them to advertisers and to sort of get a little credibility.
But clearly, especially in BuzzFeed’s case, they spent a lot of money building up a very big staff there.
And Ben Smith, the editor, hand-picked very experienced people like Miriam Elder, who does internet, the editor for international news, like from serious places.
Right, and they stuck around and they didn’t just show up and go, “Oh.”
Right. Or look at Rosie Gray. She had left to go to the Atlantic, and now she’s come back.
Yeah. One theme you talk a lot about in the book, whether you’re talking about the new companies or the Post and the Times, is this conflict or tension between the edit side and the business side. This is inherent in, I think, any media company, any journalism company, every one I’ve worked at. It was an issue for you when you worked there at the Times. And, if I’m reading you right, you think the business/edit divide has gotten too small at the Times. You think that problem has gotten worse over time.
You mean since I left?
Since you left, yeah.
You know, it is hard for me to say. I am, first of all, so happy that the Times is in such better financial health than it was when I was there.
And that would be the argument, right? Like every time something ... When the business sides have been encroaching on a traditional ... This is to help save the paper?
I mean, Keller’s ... Bill Keller was my predecessor as executive editor, and a fantastic boss, a great journalist, but he used to always say, “It comes down to keeping the Baghdad bureau open.”
And it’s hard to say absolutely no when you get down to that.
But the thing that worried me the most was that the journalists in the newsroom were seen by the CEO as being responsible for the development and creation of new products, which are revenue-producing. And none of the journalists at the Times were ever involved in revenue-producing things before. And I was disturbed. I guess the first class was when — and this was even before Mark Thompson arrived — but Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the publisher, and his cousin Michael Golden, who was a senior executive, decided that the head of video was gonna be a dual report to the business side and to me.
And before this new blended position was created, the head of video was a very distinguished documentary newsmaker, who I thought was doing great work, but the business side was really down on her and being very forceful about, “We need to make a big change.”
And that was new, them ... I was spending three-quarters of my time as executive editor in business meetings. And definitely, senior executives on the business side were weighing in on personnel and other things. That just had not happened during Bill Keller’s period. And one of his predecessors, who I’m still close to, is Jill Lelieveld, and they just drilled into me that the independence of the newsroom was the most critical thing. So I was very sensitive and on guard about this.
I write in the book, you know, maybe too much, because it’s not like there have been any even close to scandals there, and ...
Right, and you point out they’re doing this great, aggressive Facebook reporting. And they’re also, through their brand studio, creating news-like articles about Facebook. It’s never clear which is which.
And we’re very clear, as is the book, about why that is. It’s because Facebook and other social platforms completely disaggregated the news. So, you weren’t going to the Times.
No, I meant that they’re creating ads for Facebook that run in the Times.
Oh yeah, yeah yeah. Sorry. Yeah.
And saying, “Look, clearly, the revenue is not being affected by the aggressive reporting. The aggressive reporting isn’t being affected by the fact that they sell ads.”
Yeah, and I mean that duality has existed since Adolph Ochs’s time.
Do you think it’s reasonable to ask, leaving aside the top executives, but do you, on-the-ground reporters — to be thinking about how the value of their work and how it’s received, and whether their stuff is well read, or if we’re moving now towards this subscription model — whether they should be thinking about whether people want to pay for the work they’re doing? And if not, should they be creating something else? Or do you think that’s someone else’s job, when they should be going out and focus solely on creating news?
“Solely creating news” involves the distribution of your story. It’s in the world we live in.
That’s a new idea.
It sure is! But it’s part of what I was going to say, when you wisely redirected me, was the disaggregation of news, where stories appear in people’s feeds from many different sources. People don’t necessarily notice that it’s the Times story or CNN story.
And so, the journalists, at the Times, I had star journalists, but they were always mainly of the New York Times. The New York Times was ... and in the book, I have an anecdote where I tell Nate Silver’s lawyer that he said to me, “I represent the prettiest girl at the party.” I looked at him, and I said in a very sarcastic voice, “Oh no, sir. The New York Times is always the prettiest girl.” But.
Is this when Nate was deciding whether or not he was going to save the Times?
But my point is just journalists have become individual brands, and ...
And that pendulum sort of swings back and forth, but in your book you say that the clear signal within the Times in 2018, 2019, is if you wanna succeed, if you wanna have job security, you do need to be a star reporter of some sort, and you do need to make sort of clicky, popular stuff.
Or, articles about Donald Trump.
Nice segue. I wanted to ask you about Trump. You spent a bunch of time talking about it. Obviously, the Times has done great Trump coverage. You are also critical of an overly negative tone in the Times in particular. You said, “Too much of their stuff is negative.”
Here’s a quote from you, “Given its mostly liberal audience, there was an implicit financial reward for the Times in running lots of Trump stories, almost all of them negative.” And now that I’m reading them for the third time, I finally figured out what you meant. You meant the stories about Trump are negative?
Not that the reasons are negative.
Well ... Oh, yeah.
But you then go on to say, “Look, it bumped traffic, it helps sell subscriptions, but it undermines trust in the paper,” and that’s where I’m stuck.
Why? You don’t think it does?
Well, if the stories are negative because ...
It’s not trust in the paper, it’s trust in the news media broadly.
“Tone of coverage and headlines had become markedly harsher and more adversarial in part to appeal to a growing anti-Trump readership.”
Right, but that’s not ...
And the pushback, the pushback we, look, we’re reporting the facts. This is, I’m going to editorialize, but I’m free to do it. It’s my podcast. Against a real crisis here, this is a real problem and we should tell the truth. And the truth in almost all cases will be negative. If people respond to that because they support us, great. If they respond to that because they hate Trump, that’s great because they’ll go away over time.
I’m just, Peter, not sure that the excerpt from the book that you read is criticism. I’m just, it’s true; Trump has been a gold mine for television ratings and for newspapers. So that’s all I’m saying.
That is true. But then you go on to talk about this Pew study and people have a general distrust for the media, and the suggestion I get from reading the book is that if we tone that back a bit, that would help the media regain trust. And it seems like we’re well beyond that.
No, I’m not talking about toning it down, but I am talking about maybe better modulation. Like, often I’ll open, let’s say the Washington Post’s app, and one of their apps, the Post Most, actually interchanges news stories and opinion as they aggregate. And seriously, on not a few days I have to scroll past like eight or nine things that aren’t “Trump Trump, Trump, Trump.” And the other day, again ...
So is the issue that those are Trump stories that are negative, they’re feeding an audience that wants negative stories? Or are they ...
You can combine some of them.
Okay, so just less.
But the truth is that they all get clicked on, so there is an incentive. I just think I’m not ... that isn’t a criticism, it just is sort of, it’s Michael Kinsley’s rule that the biggest crime is to just say what is true.
A gaffe. He defined a gaffe.
The definition of a ... I just fact-checked you live on the podcast.
Yeah. Well, it was a long time ago.
I think that’s the ...
You have a younger memory.
What surprised you about the Washington Post when you spent time writing about that company?
The thing that surprised me immediately when I started going there to interview journalists was that it seems so happy.
You expected them to be complaining about Bezos and the new digital ...
No, not necessarily, but it was such a contrast to, you know, I spent 22 years of my career in Washington and the Washington bureau, the Wall Street Journal and then I was Washington bureau chief of the Times. And during all of that time, I mean, they were so reducing their staff and it was just depression city over there.
And you know, people whose criticism I respect a lot, like Jim Fallows, were saying in what they wrote that the quality of the newspaper was suffering. And so it was, you know, misery alley. And then what I found on day one was happy valley. And that just was surprising. It’s not like I expected them to be sour grapes about Jeff Bezos, but just to have such a quick turnaround was ...
I figured there’d be a honeymoon period where you’ve got money and someone who says they want to invest and they’ve been losing assets, losing people for a long time. And then after a while, the billionaire — and in this case, the tech billionaire — would go, “What am I doing here with this company? And actually I don’t want coverage of this.” Or the other version would be, “I’m a technologist. I’m going to fix the company with my own special software or management mandate.” And there’s bits of that, but you certainly haven’t heard complaining about it. Do you have a sense of...
No, the only criticism that is common — and it’s only in journalism circles — is that they don’t cover Amazon as aggressively as others.
What do they say to that when you bring that up?
They say “we have covered Amazon” and point to the links to stories which are good, but pretty infrequent.
I think it’s an under-covered company generally. The Times did one big take-out in the work culture there.
Jodi Kantor’s great piece.
Yeah, and I think it is a hard company to report on. Geographically, it’s far away. I think they’re certainly going to get more scrutiny over time, though.
When I have regrets about the people who said no to interviews for my book, Bezos I tried very hard to get to, and in the end he said no. After months and month and months of ... I know he was considering it.
He’s difficult to get to. I don’t blame them. I’m not sure what the upside ... I mean he’s, he’s public a bit, on his own terms.
I thought with the vile way that Trump has attacked what he calls in his tweets, “the Amazon Washington Post,” and falsely saying that they don’t pay their fair share of taxes, I thought ... and the “enemies of the people” and the fact that the Post has the new slogan, “democracy dies in darkness.” I thought he might lean in.
Yeah. Same question for the Times, right? Which is kind of a trick question because you were at the Times, a lot of what you’re reporting on in there is your personal story, in some cases. Was there stuff that you went back and said, “All right, as a reporter, I’m now an outsider. I’m actually going to go ahead and call people,” and I’m assuming you did that.
I did do that.
What surprised you about that experience? Or how did what you were hearing differ from your recollections?
I asked for ... There’s one small part of the book — and New York Magazine excerpted that part, it’s the middle New York Times chapter — which has some pages where I kind of agonized over this, but where I write in the first person about some of the troubles I had as executive editor and my firing.
And I actually did do reporting with other reporters, some of whom I didn’t know whether they’d been fans of mine or not, to kind of get a reality check on how I’d been perceived. And that was hard and occasionally painful, but not awkward. I mean, anybody, I can’t think even though the, that I say at the very beginning of the book, which is true, that the Times decided not to cooperate, I talked to just about everybody I wanted to.
And you mentioned where you say, “then this thing happened,” and then you’ve got an aside saying, “the Times said it did not.”
Right. I go by the rule, “no surprises.” As an investigative reporter, I felt no one should read a story about them or that mentions them and be totally surprised. Both the New York Times and Vice saw ... they knew almost everything and actually saw a draft of what I wrote.
But there was nothing in your reporting [where] you said, “Well obviously it happened this way,” and someone said, “No, no Jill, you have it all wrong,” or, “You didn’t realize this was happening offstage.”
Well, I don’t want to make it too obvious who it was, but in fact-checking something where I said not only, it was of these merging of someone’s job and that had been news and making it business and news. I said that this person was as unhappy as I was because we met in my office right after, and they were visibly upset to me. But in talking to them, you know, more recently what they told me is they were not really that upset, but they knew how sensitive I was about this merging. And so it was sort of faux upsetness.
If you’re a Times Kremlinologist, you can go back to that chapter and check it out. You end the book talking about local news, or it’s one of the things you talk about. The problem with local news does not get covered enough, but I think anyone who looks at it and thinks about it seriously goes, “This is a real problem.” And I’ve yet to hear of a good solution. Do you have a decent solution for what seemed to be brutal economic realities of running a mid- or small-scale ...
Not one that can scale. Not one that can scale. ProPublica, the Texas Tribune, MinnPost, and I spent quite a bit of time at MinnPost. I mean, they’re wonderful digital news organizations, and there are some in California, there’s one in Chicago, but ...
We need a wealthy person, basically, subsidizing ...
When I was managing editor of the Times, I was behind, I think it cost all of $300,000, but we were inserting, we were having Times reporters do local news in like four places where the local paper had been degraded and tried to do like two pages inserted of local news to try to plug the hole. But the hole is too big, it can’t be plugged. And the Times, to save money, canceled that program anyway. Maybe they saw it as too little and ineffective.
We had your successor Dean Baquet onstage at our conference a couple of years ago and I said, “What’s your solution?” And he basically looked like you and shrugged and turned to the rich people in the audience and said, “I hope you guys can help out,” essentially. Short of billionaires or sub-billionaires buying their own papers ...
Or great nonprofits.
Vice and BuzzFeed are going to go through some sort of permutations, but they could certainly survive. The Times and the Post look very healthy. Journal’s doing fine. Are you looking at a future where five, 10 years from now lots of papers just simply don’t exist?
If trends continue as they are — and I don’t see why they aren’t. We lost half of all journalism, newspaper jobs, half in the past 15 years. That is incredible. And hundreds of local papers have closed.
In the book, one of my big points — because I think of the lower trust in the news media — local news sources consistently rated as the most trusted because they’re closest to their communities. They’re known. And it is a real, real crisis that they’re going away. We live, Peter, I mean you’re brilliant at covering this, we live in the era of big. Where my worry is like, the Washington Post has already been acquired by big but ...
And by the way, I think one of the reasons the Post was in trouble is because it was pursuing a local strategy.
Look at Netflix and Apple are jumping into news. It may be that we just have behemoth news companies is where news is a relatively small part of the business. And that worries me.
What do you make of Google and Facebook each saying “we’re putting $300 million into news with a local emphasis and push subscriptions...” You just made a great face.
I did. I’m skeptical because I don’t really think they understand journalism.
What they tell me when I say things like, “You guys should just be taxed, you should just have a tax that gets distributed...
Like a utility.
Like a utility, and they go, “No.” Or just make it a straight subsidy, just go ahead and cut checks to all the local papers. And they say, “Listen, if they have failed business models, we’re going to help them learn how to run their businesses correctly.”
But what they don’t understand, even Vice and BuzzFeed and certainly the New York Times and the Washington Post, I found in reporting my book, they have a sense of mission. And I’m not saying there’s no sense of mission, of doing important things to better society, but ...
I think they absolutely think ... By the way, many of those folks at those companies are ideologues, and I think in a good way, they just don’t think their mission is to save journalism, which may be fair.
Well, journalism is fundamental to saving democracy. The First Amendment is first for a reason.
Can we leave it on an up note? What’s the most surprising, encouraging thing you found in your reporting?
That young people are now a lot more interested in news. They are. And that’s crucial. That’s something I worked on at the Times, like inculcating a new generation of subscribers, and I think that’s gonna turn out happy.
I hope that’s true. Jill, this is great. I was looking forward to this for some time, so thanks for doing it.
Thank you for having me, Peter.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.