A Former Times Executive Editor Reports on Journalism’s Stormy Seas
MERCHANTS OF TRUTH
The Business of News and the Fight for Facts
By Jill Abramson
534 pp. Simon & Schuster. $30.
In the early spring of 2014, A. G. Sulzberger, then an editor on the metro desk of The New York Times, handed Jill Abramson, the executive editor, a copy of the “innovation report.” Sulzberger and a team of colleagues had been working on the document for months, and they’d produced a vivisection of the paper. The Times had been slow to adapt to the emergence of new digital platforms; it had thumbed its nose at the internet and thus the future. The report was insightful, enlightened and tough. And it drove Abramson over the edge.
She was upset because she didn’t think it credited her enough. Not a word of praise was offered for her having helped unite nytimes.com and the main newsroom. Worse, the report also encouraged The Times to loosen the barriers dividing the editorial and business sides. That, to her, was a road to perdition. “For me, it was an epic defeat,” she writes. She had wanted to be the executive editor who protected the newsroom from “crass commercialism”; she had wanted to avoid “metric charts influencing editors to promote stories according to their traffic.”
She raged quietly and plotted.
In May of that year, she made her move — and completely bungled it. She offered a managing editor position in charge of digital to Janine Gibson, an editor at The Guardian of England. Abramson then deceived her deputy, Dean Baquet, about the offer; when he found out the truth he was furious. A few days later, the publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., A. G.’s father, fired Abramson. Baquet became executive editor.
The episode, in more ways than one, set Abramson on a path that would produce “Merchants of Truth,” her book examining four news organizations trying to sail through the storm of digital transformation: BuzzFeed, Vice, The Washington Post and The Times. It’s partly a memoir and partly a work of investigatory reporting. But it’s mostly an audit of an industry that has spent much of the past decade wetting its pants in fear of digital technology and then worrying about whether to go to the dry cleaners. And it’s a damn good read.
The book tells the story in 13 chapters, three on each protagonist-company and one on Facebook. And it begins with BuzzFeed and its shrewd leader Jonah Peretti, the industry’s stalwart in figuring out how to profit off the ways modern technology taps into America’s id. The company he creates is a pioneer: at entertainment, at clickbait, at blurring lines between advertising and news, and at persuading other publishers to give him their precious data for almost nothing. He masters Facebook and quickly realizes one of the central lessons for modern media: New social platforms aren’t just distribution platforms for your old stuff — like your website or your newspapers. They are entirely new places, with new rules, for you to create new content.
Meanwhile, as Peretti builds up an empire based on lists about basset hounds, he also creates a serious operation, BuzzFeed News, that churns out scoops and serious stories, including the first revelations about the role of fake news during the 2016 election. Peretti starts this money-losing wing, Abramson writes, as a way to create cachet for the money-winning side of his empire. The result is roughly similar to McDonald’s including slices of apples in Happy Meals.
Next we turn to Vice, the hard-partying empire of cool that in 2017 turned its founder Shane Smith into a billionaire. Abramson is impressed by some of the journalism and perhaps even by some of Smith’s famous bluster. But she has a keen eye for the central irony at the core of Vice. The company created branded content for giant advertisers — and killed stories that criticized them — at the same time that it cultivated an image of rebellion. It was giving the Man the finger while simultaneously massaging his back.
Abramson also has her eyes trained on what she sees as the company’s sexism: At one point, she quotes The Baffler’s description of Vice as a “vertically integrated rape joke.” And she pushes forward with the tale of an executive who cheats on his wife with one of his underlings, and then annoys that girlfriend by kissing another producer, who, the story goes, has to fend him off with an umbrella. Abramson’s critique of Vice stings, though a number of former Vice employees have claimed on social media that there are errors in her text.
The third setting is The Washington Post, where our story begins with the company’s earnest patriarch, Donald E. Graham — clumsily betting on local news even as the revenue attached to it dries up, and cannily betting on Mark Zuckerberg, who reneges on a handshake deal that would have given Graham a stake in Zuckerberg’s fledgling company. Abramson describes Zuckerberg lying on a bathroom floor and crying with guilt after the betrayal. In retrospect, it’s hard not to think that the young C.E.O. would have been better off keeping his word and choosing the sensible, moral journalist over the venture capitalists.
Eventually Graham sells to one of the few men richer than Zuckerberg, and the paper begins its new life. An engraving in the newsroom appears after Jeff Bezos takes over with the mantra “What’s dangerous is not to evolve.” The message is exactly right for the industry, and it works. Bezos focuses on the product and engineering departments at The Post, making the pages fast to load and the stories easy to read across platforms. Editorially, it essentially takes the inverse model of BuzzFeed, serving a side of clickbait with a main course of serious journalism. Most everything works, and soon after Bezos arrives The Post has even more readers than The Times.
Last of course is The New York Times, a story that benefits immensely from Abramson’s inside dirt, her genuine admissions about the errors she made and the obvious delight she takes in settling scores. In fact, nothing seems to please her as much as the moments when she can stick her knives into Dean Baquet. At one point, she tells the tale of a reporter named Eric Lichtblau. He was upset that a piece of his on Trump and Russia had been delayed, and then watered down. After The Times’s public editor weighed in, Baquet emailed Lichtblau: “I hope your colleagues rip you a new asshole.” Abramson then publishes another internal email from Baquet that she’s been given, this one complaining about Times reporters who had disclosed confidential conversations about the Lichtblau article. “I guess I’m disappointed that this ended up in print,” Baquet writes — a message that Abramson herself has now immortalized in print. It’s hard to know who has the moral high ground in this fight. But I do look forward to the Abramson sections whenever Baquet writes his own memoirs.
As the book ends, the digital pioneers are in tatters. Vice has lost its swagger amid its sexual harassment scandals and its readership is in decline. Facebook has abandoned BuzzFeed, and much of the rest of the publishing industry. Peretti, who has always seemed to know where the media are headed before the rest of the media, seems temporarily as shellshocked as his peers.
Meanwhile, the winners appear to be The Post and, even more so, The New York Times. Or as Abramson writes in the conclusion, “Of all the executives who had faced the ferocious waters of the digital revolution, Arthur Sulzberger Jr. had come closest to crossing to safety.” And the reason for his success comes from developing new products that depended on both the reporting and business sides, and following the metric charts that told the paper what stories to run.
It’s the ultimate irony: Jill Abramson was, indirectly at least, fired because of her resistance to the “innovation report.” And now she’s produced a marvelous book about exactly how prescient the darn thing was.
Nicholas Thompson is the editor in chief of Wired magazine.
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