So, about that $100,000 fee that ousted New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson and her old boss Steven Brill plan to pay writers for articles at their digital journalism startup…
Sure, Abramson said during a recent visit to Quartz for an on-the-record chat with newsroom staffers, it sounds like a lot. But that’s only in comparison with the meager salaries most journalists get paid. “When did that become the ethos that all of us accept?” she asks. “It’s crazy.”
And yes, the former New York Times executive editor is aware of the skepticism about the economics of her new venture. But until she and Brill have locked in their financial backers and worked out the specifics of their business model, she’s not interested in indulging anyone’s speculation as to whether a new media outlet publishing one mega-feature a month can afford to pay writers that kind of money.
Also, that $100,000 figure is just an average. Some contributors, she is happy to remind you, will be offered more.
For writers, this won’t be easy money. It’s meant to support months of painstaking reporting, and a commitment to pieces of about 20,000 words in length—several times longer than the average magazine cover story. Think seminal works of long-form journalism: Gay Talese writing in Esquire, or John Hersey’s epic Hiroshima, which took up nearly an entire 1946 issue of The New Yorker before it was published in book form. For a more recent example, consider Bitter Pill (paywall), Brill’s own 26,000-word opus in a 2013 issue of Time, about the high price of health care in America.
“I want to be a spokeswoman for the slow-writing movement,” Abramson says.
She says that both she and Brill—who helped launch Abramson’s career nearly 35 years ago when he hired her for his American Lawyer magazine, and went on to found CourtTV and the media watchdog publication Brill’s Content—have committed to writing for their new venture themselves.
“We’re each going to do one killer piece a year,” Abramson says.
She won’t reveal much about the first piece she’s planning, other than to say that it likely will reflect her investigative reportorial roots. As for the handful of pitches the duo already has received from other journalists, some are intriguing, while others are “fine ideas but they’re on subjects that feel a little over-saturated right now,” Abramson says. “We don’t want to be riding with the pack.”
What she mainly wants, she says, is to rescue a time-honored story format that she fears won’t be honored much longer, as the business imperatives of digital journalism push more of the industry toward aggregation and one-note stories that are rushed out to the web. “I’m seriously worried that the quality of writing has deteriorated,” she says. “I started to be worried at the New York Times,” where she found that the pace and thrust of online publishing did little to encourage thoughtful prose.
“If I had to read one more time that ‘the stakes couldn’t be higher,’ I was going to vomit,” she says.
Here are some of the other things we learned during her visit to Quartz:
She never felt tension between editorial integrity and social media viability at the New York Times. “The honest answer is that it may be part of why I’m not there anymore. I never gave a thought to play up stories just because I thought they would play well on social media.”
She was “heartsick” when the Edward Snowden story broke in The Guardian and the Washington Post. “I was heartsick… for our readers, and just for the Times, that Snowden didn’t want to come to the Times.” He was still resentful, she says, that her predecessor at the paper had postponed publication—for 13 months—of an article about a secret US government surveillance program that involved the wiretapping of Americans. (The story was held at the request of the Bush White House.)
She was proudest of the Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of government corruption in China. Reporter David Barboza uncovered a “whale of a tale” that led to swift repercussions by the Chinese government, she says, but the paper never self-censored, and government-imposed censorship can only do so much. “There are a lot of people in China who know how to work around the censors,” Abramson says.
She had not read Daisy Hernandez’s excerpt on Salon about the struggles of being Latina at the New York Times. But while she agrees the newsroom there could be more diverse, she says she didn’t find it to be an “oppressive, monotone culture,” but rather one that feeds off a shared passion for news.
She has clear advice for young journalists wondering if they’re better off being “a nobody” at the New York Times or focusing on their own brand. “I would definitely be a nobody at the New York Times,” she says. “Before you can be a brand, you have to know something. I’m sorry, you do.”