Pitt News Editors: Former New York Times Leader Jill Abramson ‘Hasn’t Let Journalism’s Reinvention or Gender Disparity Clobber Her Optimism’

Jill Abramson ventured last week to the Steel City to talk journalism with University of Pittsburgh students. In recent months, the former New York Times executive editor has popped up evermore frequently in the mainstream press and on geeky insider media sites. The buzzwords surrounding most pieces about her and her post-NYT endeavors: Women Leaders in the Newsroom. Traditional Media’s Future. $100,000 Stories. And $1 Million Book Deal.

Prior to a class chat at Pitt, Abramson kindly sat for an interview with Pitt News editor-in-chief Natalie Daher (also a CMM Editorial Fellow) and managing editor Danielle Fox.


Among the perspectives Abramson shared with the pair was the importance in her eyes of learning about both “Hamlet” and HTML:

“I’m kind of an endlessly curious person. I’m not someone who, even today, would deny myself interesting experiences only because I’m honing a resumé. Having a variety of experiences and exposing yourself to different walks of life and different cultures actually makes you a better journalist in the end. I have nothing against learning coding or developing some of the technical skills that are in such demand as our society becomes completely digitally literate. I think you do need skills, and I applaud students who get them. But I wouldn’t trade Shakespeare for a particular program or coding technique.”

In the brief Q&A below, Daher and Fox discuss their impressions of Abramson and the parts of her class talk and interview that resonated most with each of them.

After interviewing Abramson and hearing her speak in class, what especially stood out about her?

Daher: It was refreshing to hear Ms. Abramson speak with sincere conviction about not only the survival but the longevity of quality journalism. I’ve encountered or heard about plenty of veteran journalists who view my generation as the downfall of journalism’s timeless values. But it was clear that Ms. Abramson wanted to bestow upon the next troop of journalists the knowledge she’s acquired from decades in newsrooms — particularly as a core player during the transition from print to digital. I found her personable, lighthearted and committed to living a fulfilling life infused by her and others’ experiences. She exhibited a devotion to narrative storytelling, penned by writers like Gay Talese, as well as knowledge about the range of digital storytelling’s possibilities.

Fox: Ms. Abramson is comforting in how calm she is. In a 24/7 news cycle, I feel like a good dose of franticness and post-print apocalyptic doom has seeped into journalism. Yet, Ms. Abramson showed such faith — $100,000-a-writer worth of it — in online journalism that our talk made me wonder why I ever worried about going digital in the first place. Ms. Abramson is also realistic, but not pessimistic. Only two months after Fusion’s Felix Salmon came out with his death-knell column “To All The Young Journalists Asking for Advice…” it was encouraging to watch Ms. Abramson light up while discussing her students and the future of journalism.

“Ms. Abramson is comforting in how calm she is. In a 24/7 news cycle, I feel like a good dose of franticness and post-print apocalyptic doom has seeped into journalism. Yet, Ms. Abramson showed such faith — $100,000-a-writer worth of it — in online journalism that our talk made me wonder why I ever worried about going digital in the first place.”  – Fox

What did she say during your interview that most resonated with you or inspired you?

Daher: What most resonated with me was Ms. Abramson’s easygoingness toward figuring it all out. She has been on the front lines of arguably the most prestigious newspaper in our country that’s now often called “traditional media,” and she still emitted [that easygoing attitude]. My managing editor Danielle and I had a long conversation last weekend after hearing Ms. Abramson speak at the Georges Conference about “being authentic.” I, at least, felt this urgency to parse through everything — personal, professional, whatever — to unearth some truth I was missing in this quest for authenticity. But then I realized I’m over-thinking things, as usual. It was inspiring to hear an admirable journalist remind us that we’re young and that the regular tumult — crises and self-discoveries alike — is actually pretty cool.

Fox: As a rising editor-in-chief, it was great to hear Ms. Abramson speak about how becoming a leader is a lengthy process. We often hear that some people are natural-born leaders, which I believe perpetuates stigma around visibly trying to strengthen your leadership skills. Ms. Abramson also honestly appraised her career and wasn’t afraid to point to her proudest moments, such as establishing the race and ethnicity beat. I think this touches back to her pursuit of authenticity. She’s not afraid to offer her honest opinion, but she slows down and weighs the meaning of her words before opening her mouth. I can’t say that I do the same. I left the interview vowing to think more and talk less.

Based on your interview and her class chat, is there anything you do not totally agree with Abramson about or have a separate viewpoint on?

Daher: There wasn’t anything we discussed in our interview with Ms. Abramson that I disagreed with, and that’s not for fear of honesty. Ms. Abramson hasn’t let journalism’s period of reinvention — or the gender disparity — clobber her optimism. For anyone entering the industry, witnessing the confidence and willingness to change coming from a professional of her caliber is immensely reassuring. On a professional/personal note, Ms. Abramson paused and thought about her answers before uttering them. There wasn’t a breath wasted, and that’s a wise tactic to apply to most or all conversations, I think.

Fox: I feel uneasy saying I agreed with absolutely everything that came up in the interview, yet that’s exactly what happened. From Emma Watson to Medium replacing Tumblr as the main blogosphere, Ms. Abramson could speak to any moment of journalism or gender disparity. If anything, I wished I asked her how much media she consumes during a day. She was a seemingly bottomless pool of knowledge.

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