By Chris Daly
Since the announcement of her appointment as the next top editor of The New York Times, Jill Abramson has received a lot of attention. At the same time, the newly designated leader of the most important institution in U.S. journalism has been fairly circumspect. It’s fair to say that more has been said about her than by her.
But she did speak at length recently in a public forum: the annual conference on narrative non-fiction, hosted at Boston University. Abramson was one of the keynote speakers, sharing the honors with Gay Talese, Susan Orlean, Ken Auletta and other distinguished practitioners, and she went into some detail about her views on long-form storytelling as well as multimedia storytelling. All in all, her presentation gave some powerful signals about where she might lead the Times.
[Full disclosure time: I have known Jill for 30-something years; I admire her and consider her a friend. I also had a tiny role in organizing the conference at BU. So, there you go.]
Abramson was introduced by the main conference organizer, Isabel Wilkerson, who won a Pulitzer Prize while working as a reporter for the Times, then left to pursue her epic narrative of black migration within the United States, the much-acclaimed (and definitely long-form) book The Warmth of Other Suns.
In her talk, Abramson gave the crowd a good sense of what she took away from the six months she spent in late 2010 immersing herself in the world of social media, multimedia, and the like. But first she reaffirmed her enthusiasm for the kind of long-form journalism known as “narrative non-fiction.” As Gay Talese beamed a few rows away, Abramson described how she uses Talese’s landmark profile “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” in her teaching. For about five years, Abramson has been teaching a course each spring in journalism at Yale. (Since Yale does not have a full-blown Journalism department, the course is offered under the auspices of the English Department — or, as Abramson calls it, the “House of Hersey,” in honor of another hero, the journalist and novelist John Hersey, who taught at Yale.)
Here’s what she had to say about journalism and multimedia:
Abramson sees a “very robust future” for narrative non-fiction. She said her intention was to explore the roots of narrative non-fiction and to trace its relationship to today’s “dizzying” 24/7 news cycle.
In her teaching, she tries to spread her “viral enthusiasm” for long-form journalism, citing Hersey’s classic “Hiroshima” as a canonical text. She said her students, despite their youth, quickly become engrossed in Hersey’s meticulous recreation of the impact of the atomic bomb on his six chosen subjects. “Imagine how may clicks you would need today to read it on your iPad.”
And she cited Talese’s Sinatra piece as another canonical work, one that she uses as the first reading every semester; she likes it because, among other reasons, it points up the need for obsessive reporting, which she said is even more important than access.
This kind of reporting, according to Abramson, can now be found only at the Times, the New Yorker, and “precious few other places.”
Calling narrative non-fiction “a distinct American art form,” she said that the doomsayers were wrong when they predicted that the coming of the Web would destroy the love of reading. As evidence, she pointed to the “most read” and “most emailed” features in the Times, which often include lengthy pieces from the magazine. One recent example was the profile of Obama’s mother by Janny Scott (although Abramson acknowledged that the piece may have received a boost from the insanely cute photo of Obama in a pirate costume).
Abramson said that after holding out for a while, she recently got an iPad and quickly became “slavishly addicted” to it. “It could make me a hermit.” In her view, the iPad (and presumably, other tablets as well) give narrative non-fiction new life by expanding its reach to a new audience — and it’s an audience that is getting used to the idea of paying for content.
“The long-form article is not only alive, it is actually dancing to new music.”
She described her 2010 sabbatical from her daily m.e. duties as a “deep digital dive” during which she spent considerable time looking at sites like Politco and HuffPO. Their readers, she decided, are mainly “snackers,” looking for what she calls “scoop-lets” – short , gossipy items.
Abramson acknowledged that HuffPo founder Arrianna Huffington says she wants to feature longer articles. Problem is, according to Abramson, those pieces are time-consuming and therefore expensive. “You really can’t do original reporting by scraping the Internet.” You also need a cadre of reporters with experience. It is “a source of worry” that news outlets are continuing to cut back on their investigative teams and foreign bureaus — two notorious cost centers inside news organizations.
Abramson also took a swipe at the Times‘ nemesis, Rupert Murdoch. She reiterated the point she made in a recent piece by Ken Auletta in the New Yorker, in which she was quoted as lamenting the demise of the old page 1 features, which Murdoch did away with after acquiring the Wall Street Journal, where Abramson cut her teeth as an investigative reporter. Those feature stories gave readers “the story behind the story.”
“The current Journal… rarely has these pieces. The new Journal, at its core, is a quick-delivery system. It’s excellent . . . but those long distinctive pieces are mostly gone, and that makes me very sad indeed.”
So, where is narrative non-fiction still flourishing?
It’s still around some of the old familiar places — the New Yorker and the Atlantic, to name two. But Abramson said readers can also find great reporting in new venues.
One place that she touted is ProPublica — the prize-winning, online-only investigative organization — which Abramson said has about 30 investigative reporters, who work exclusively on long narratives. She said she was impressed by the reporting done by Dr. Sheri Fink for ProPublica on the medical decisions made during Hurricane Katrina, which turned into a joint project with the Times. (Abramson called the work “essentially a co-production.”
“There are new flowers blooming all over the place. That keeps me optimistic. . . .We are told that younger people don’t read. But…”
She touted several other Websites, including The Atavist, Byliner and Longreads, as well as Kindle’s “Singles” program, which sells pieces in the 10,000- to 30,000-word range.
“I’d like to reassert the Times’s deep and enduring commitment to long-form narratives and the sometimes crazy, obsessed, manic-depresseive work cycles they require from the people who create them.”
“Impact. These articles really do change the world.”
She presented two examples from the Times:
1) Alan Schwarz’s series on concussion in football and other sports.
Abramson said Schwarz was a stringer when he started this series and then brought on staff specifically so he could pursue the topic. He was also “plucked” out of the Sports department and assigned to work with a special editor. “He was a math major who never studied journalism. He relies on the mathematical idea of the “golden ratio” — which he uses as his organizing principle when outlining longer pieces.
2) The paper’s multimedia series “A Year at War.”
“Finally, I’d like to talk about the new face of long-form journalism at the Times.”
Abramson shared a vision of “integrated story-telling” where audio, video and photos are “not simply offshoots of written pieces but are integral to the journalism from the inception of a project.”
The example she chose was “A Year at War.”
(Note: this is not easy to find on the Times’s densely packed homepage, but is well worth pursuing; the packages like this are ghettoized and can only be found by using the search function. This is the something that the Times needs to address and, once Abramson takes over, maybe will do. She said she would like to develop a prominent place on the Times site that could be a “library” of great long-form projects. For now, you have to find the tiny link called “Multimedia” in the faint gray lettering on the left-side navbar; it does not appear in the navigation bars at the top or bottom of the page. Once you get to the Multimedia page – actually titled “Multimedia/Photos” – you have to scroll down pretty far. Hang in there. I would link to it, but I want readers to try to find it. Any other newspaper in America would be incredibly proud of all this work and would tout it much more aggressively. Aw, heck, here’s the link to the section: And here’s the link to the feature that Abramson showed.)
“From the beginning, we saw this series as a way to reengage our readership – depressed and bored by nearly a decade of war coverage.”
“Rather than focusing on fighting or on strategy, we wanted to look intimately at the troops themselves. . . . We wanted to show, in close to real time, how service affects soldiers.”
The who project was conceived as a narrative with looping detours that readers could follow. The project also includes writings and photos done by the soldiers themselves – “which were amazing.”
“This is probably the richest and deepest content we have ever offered readers of a long series.”
Abramson then showed the conference audience the moving segment about Sgt. First Class Brian Eisch and his two adorable sons.
“I leave you with my optimism about the past, the present, and the future of this uniquely American art form that we all treasure.”
P.S. Boston University has helpfully posted a video of Jill Abramson’s talk, so you can see the whole thing for yourself.