The Tab Meets: Jill Abramson

JOE WHITWELL talks to Jill Abramson, executive editor at the New York Times about the expectations around the role of press.

Cathy Horyn editor guardian iht international herald tribune jill abramson journalism new york times new yorker NSA nyt snowden studnet suzy menkes Union

Jill Abramson came to the Union for a question and answer session this week. As Executive Editor of the New York Times at a time when press is under international scrutiny and its ethical role is being deeply questioned, she revealed a lot about their relationship with government and how her attitude has had to change.

She spoke to JOE WHITWELL about it all.


In your talk, you talked about a dinner conversation with the editor of the Guardian, after the government had smashed up their hard-drives. You said he passed you a “shard of hard-drive” which contained some of the Snowden files…

He didn’t give me one if that’s your question, I was dropping heavy hints.

Where were you when you got that news and what was your response?

It’s interesting because I don’t remember where I was. I don’t even remember exactly when I learned about it but it was no longer that relevant because they were sitting very safely in a safe in our legal department.

With big stories like this, do you always make contingency plans in case government will want to intervene or if something goes wrong?

Not always, the last time we had a contingency plan was in 2005 for the NSA’s warrantless eavesdropping. We were going to publish the story on our website rather than wait for the conventional newspaper deadline because in the back of our minds we thought maybe there was a possibility that the government would try to restrain us from printing the newspaper.

You said that your instinct is to always go to publish. How often do you hold off and how often do you publish?

Holding off publishing a whole story would be highly unusual but the balancing test that I make in all of these cases is on the one hand the need to inform the public and on the other the need to protect people. We don’t publish about troop movements, ever, because we are going to cost lives. In cases where I think there really is any danger of a loss of life I would put the brakes on.

Yesterday, the International Herald Tribune became the International New York Times. Is that a rebrand or a shift in focus?

It’s a strategic shift in focus. A concerted effort to make the outlook of our full news report globally-focused and to publish news when it happens and where it happens. Suzy Menkes is still doing fashion whereas in the US paper Cathy Horyn is the lead fashion critic. We are not going to impose Cathy into Suzy’s territory and I think a lot of readers will see very much the same but perhaps with a quality increase for main news articles.

What advice do you have for student journalist who wants to be where you are in 20 or 30 years time?

Well I think it’s the same advise that I got when I was first interested in journalism and was a student journalist which is if you have a passion for story telling and don’t mind talking to people and approaching people who you don’t know and then listening really carefully to what they say and somehow scrambling that omelette together and making a story out of it then definitely think about a career in journalism.

What’s the biggest story of your career?

It may seem obscure here but the confirmation battle surrounding Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas when Anita Hill came forth with allegations of sexual harassment. That was the first really big story that I was a reporter on. I ended up writing a book with Jane Mayer of the New Yorker. It is still in many ways the single piece of work that I’m proudest of because everyone said that no one will never know the truth but as a journalist I just don’t believe that you can never find out the truth and I think that it took a couple of years of hard reporting to find it.

As the interview wrapped up she continued to share…

Did you know guys that I was a student here for like 5 minutes. One of the summers that I was in high school I went on a study tour in Britain. We went here and to Oxford and LSE and it was so great but we came to Cambridge  first and I just remember falling in love with the place. I can’t remember which college but looking at the vastness of the eating hall and it was like nothing I have ever seen.