Jill Abramson, former executive editor of The New York Times, delivered a talk on Wednesday night that ran the gamut from discussions of journalism’s transition to a digital landscape to commentary on her role as a female executive. Abramson’s lecture also touched on gender and racial diversity in the newsroom and her recent ouster from The Times, where she served as the first female executive editor.

Abramson opened the lecture by detailing her concerns about the state of the freedom of the press in the United States. Abramson referenced the recent increase in the prosecution of whistleblowers for criminal leaks of classified information. The Obama administration has prosecuted more people under the Espionage Act than all other administrations combined. 
Abramson took a stance of solidarity with recent government whistleblowers, supporting their efforts to uphold democratic ideals.     

While Abramson acknowledged the illegality of certain types of reporting, she referenced prior successes of risky investigative journalism such as Daniel Ellsberg’s leak of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. 

“He did it because he saw in those documents that the government had told massive lies about how well the Vietnam War was progressing,” she said. “He felt that it was vitally important for the public to know the truth. In almost all of these eight leak cases, that same belief is what motivated the source who leaked the material.”

Abramson also spoke extensively about the changing role of quality journalism in the modern media landscape. As executive editor of The Times, she made the paper’s digital strategy a primary focus, organizing the newsroom to emphasize digital content production and rethinking the publishing process to increase online engagement. 

In her speech, Abramson presented a positive attitude about the role of long-form journalism in a digital landscape, citing readers’ enduring appetite for quality writing and the power of platforms like Facebook and Twitter to deliver content to more people than ever before. 

“If you were going to ask me who is the most influential person in journalism right now, I’d have a hard time saying whether it’s the executive editor of The New York Times or the engineer that does the algorithm for Facebook’s news feed,” Abramson said. “The Times, in many ways, is dependent on that engineer to have that news picked up and amplified and brought to you.” 

Social media has become an important distribution channel for journalism, but the current of important information also flows the opposite way. Abramson explained how the first coverage of the events in Ferguson this summer came from Twitter users, not traditional publications.

“There was a lot of criticism in the early days of the Ferguson story that the mainstream media was slow to get on it,” she said. “But really it was a Twitter story. It was people who saw the images of a dead body laying in the street that forced the media to cover it like a news story.” 

The focus of the talk then shifted to her role as a female executive in a question-and-answer session with Tallman Scholar in Gender and Women’s Studies Susan Faludi, and William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of the Humanities in Gender and Women’s Studies Jennifer Scanlon. 

“I was extremely conscious that the only reason I was executive editor was because of all the fighting and hard work of so many women on whose shoulders I stood,” Abramson said, referencing, among others, Betsy Wade, the first female copy editor for The Times, who filed a sex-discrimination lawsuit against the paper in the 1970s.

Abramson explained how she took deliberate steps to promote qualified women to positions of power at the paper.

“I did not make it a secret at the Times that I did not intend to make it worse than it had been across the board and I would make an emphasis on promoting qualified women.”

The issue of negotiating pay inequity has come up amid speculation about her firing last May. Many have noted that Abramson called attention to inequities between her compensation and that of the previous executive editor shortly before she was fired.

“Somehow, it comes up as an angry thing as opposed to just a business-like thing—a transaction like any other,” she said. “For some reason I think, women typically, just do that due diligence at the front end less frequently than men.”

Students generally responded positively to Abramson’s lecture. With regards to women’s issues, June Lei ’18 suggested that her achievements and her personality were more inspiring that the content of the talk.  

“She obviously has thought a lot about what it’s like to be a woman in a place where women are not really welcome,” Lei said. “She’s often described as a little intense and she’s aware of that. Sometimes if you’re a woman you try to do everything. You try to be perfect and polite and also strong and powerful, but it doesn’t really work. She doesn’t really give a fuck and I like that.”

The talk was held in Pickard Theater and sponsored by the Gender and Women’s Studies Department and the Charles Weston Pickard Lecture Fund.