The future of journalism is a perennial concern for those who work for—and love—newspapers, so the chance to hear former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson and former New Republic editor Franklin Foer report from the frontlines following their highly publicized 2014 ousters drew around 100 local print-media-lovers to UVA’s Harrison Auditorium December 3.
The Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture and the media studies department sponsored the panel, dubbed “The fate of journalism in the digital media age,” a title that made Abramson “a little squeamish,” according to the institute’s Jay Tolson.
Lesson No. 1: There is not one great business model that’s going to save journalism, says Abramson, the first woman executive editor of the New York Times, who was fired in May 2014.
She cites the “enormous financial pressure” the Times was under. Her love was working with reporters, she says, but her job turned into a “pressurized search for new products.” She notes that Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. did not do massive newsroom cuts as other papers did, but says, “I didn’t feel equipped to be the person who would figure out the best product” and commercial app.
And, she says, “Something I particularly loathe is when someone refers to the New York Times as ‘the brand’.”
“The fear of missing out drives so much now in media,” says Foer. “There’s a lot of outsourcing of strategy and strategic thinking to technology.”
Traditionally there’s been an ethical wall between the news side and the business side so readers would know the news is impartially reported and not paid content by advertisers. Now, says Abramson, that divide is called an “uncollaborative approach.”
Foer was on his second stint as editor of the New Republic when the struggling magazine was bought by Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, a “white knight rich beyond my dreams,” says Foer. The two clicked for two and a half years, until Hughes’ “ideals about journalism gave way to technology,” says Foer.
When Hughes hired a CEO from Yahoo who didn’t meet with Foer before outlining his ideas to the staff, “I knew I was screwed,” says Foer. Following his abrupt resignation last December, 12 people on staff resigned, as did 50 contributing editors, he says.
Lesson No. 2: There’s a difference between journalism and media. “The New York Times produces journalism, but the New York Times is a media company,” says Foer.
Journalism is a craft, explains Abramson, which requires going to places, asking questions, spelling names correctly, fact-checking and telling a story “in a way that honors readers.”
And while one doesn’t have to be professionally trained, she says, “You cannot send a quote citizen journalist unquote out into a war zone and have a good result.”
Lesson No. 3: “Facebook in my mind is the biggest publisher of news,” says Abramson, because more people than ever get most of their news from the social media giant.
But as an aggregator, Facebook is not making journalistic decisions, says Abramson. “They’re not the ones to hold government accountable.”
Foer calls Facebook, Google and Amazon “monopolies that want people to self-publish because the content is free,” which, he says,“causes radial deflation in the value of knowledge.” And that leads to…
Lesson No. 4: The danger of engineering content to be popular, shown through real-time website analytics by companies like Chartbeat. “We need to quantify everything we do,” says Foer, whether it’s “how many steps we take or how many clicks we get.”
And, he warns, “If you think that way, Donald Trump is what you get. Clickbait.”
Foer compares clickbait to when frozen foods became popular 50 years ago and made dinner as easy as popping it into the oven. “Then we found out they make us fat and are loaded with chemicals that cause cancer,” he says.
“The things we read are being engineered to play off our psyche, regardless of whether they’re good for us,” he says.
“Chartbeat is the crack cocaine of journalism,” according to a reporter Abramson knows. Abramson is working on a book about new media companies, and says BuzzFeed will have a story with three different headlines and monitor which is performing best.
And certain words are “hotter or colder” to draw readers into stories, says Foer. “Part of the problem is that journalism used to be a field that led. We weren’t supposed to appeal to social psychology unless you were a tabloid. It feels dirty.”
“Ubiquity is the new exclusivity is something a new media titan told me,” says Abramson about the study of words that prompt people to want to share. She points to the Little Red Riding Hood kitten that’s phenomenally popular on BuzzFeed, designed to bring a smile to a friend when shared.
“As a journalist, I never spent one minute doing that,” she says. “I was an investigative journalist.”
Lesson No. 5: All is not despair for journalism. BuzzFeed has invested in a department of investigative journalists that’s as big as the New York Times’, says Abramson. And VICE sends reporters to cover foreign stories, which is an expensive undertaking, she says.
And not every legacy institution has been weakened by the advent of digital publishing, believes Abramson. “I don’t think the Times has been weakened,” she says. By not cutting staff and foreign bureaus, the paper is “now in kind of an economic class by itself,” she says, ready to do what journalism does best: hold government and big business accountable.