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New York Times editor gives lecture

McKenzie Berezin/Daily
Jill Abramson, executive editor of the New York Times, discusses the future of journalism in a lecture Tuesday at Kahn Auditorium in the Biomedical Science Research Building. Buy this photo

By Adam Rubenfire, Managing News Editor
Published March 19, 2013

Though it seems like aggregate sites, gossip blogs and social media dominate the Internet, Jill Abramson still thinks there’s a high demand for quality journalism.

Abramson, the executive editor at the New York Times, told a crowd of about 200 people at the Biomedical Science Research Building Tuesday that, despite popular belief, there are more signs than not of excellence in journalism.

“I believe there is more quality journalism being produced today than ever before,” Abramson said.

The University’s Center for Education of Women invited Abramson to speak as the 18th Mullin Welch Lecturer. She is the Times’ first female executive editor.

The esteemed journalist came to The New York Times in 1997 after working at several publications, including Time magazine and The Wall Street Journal. She served as the Times’ Washington bureau chief and managing editor before being appointed executive editor of the New York Times.

Speaking on her 59th birthday, Abramson said she believes it is her “highest calling” to make sure that production of quality journalism continues to be a sustainable business practice in today’s crowded, often informal media market.

“Quality, serious journalism that is thoroughly reported, elegantly told and that truly honors the intelligence of its readers is the business model of the New York Times,” Abramson said. “I believe that’s why the Times has been successful during this challenging transition from print to digital.”

She pointed to Times reports on Wal-Mart Mexico’s practices of bribing state officials and on the hidden wealth of relatives of Wen Jaibo, the former Chinese prime minister, when he was in office. Abramson also noted that the Times has put a priority on multimedia storytelling, evidenced by Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek, a 30,000-word piece that garnered significant attention for its one-of-a-kind interactive experience.

Despite all the praise she had for the Times’ business model, she stopped short of suggesting that news outlets are perfect these days.

Abramson acknowledged that the Times significantly mishandled reporting on the Bush administration’s claims that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. She said the Times and many other news outlets ran the administration’s claims on page one and pushed stories expressing skepticism about the claims to the back of the paper. Former Washington reporter Judith Miller caused much controversy with her reporting on WMDs, much of which was found to be based on inaccurate information.

Abramson also expressed concern that many regional newspapers that were previously of high quality are being forced to cut back. Many papers that had foreign or domestic bureaus have been forced to limit their content to only local stories.

“It bothers me profoundly that where the most has been sacrificed has been at the local level,” Abramson said, noting that it is important that municipal and state governments continue to have watchdogs holding them accountable.

Abramson also spoke about the importance of maintaining a diverse newsroom and cultivating a female voice in the media industry. Abramson said the Times’ masthead is about 50-percent female, its highest-ever proportion, adding that women make up 40 percent of the average newsroom — a number she’s looking to increase.

Concluding her speech, Abramson encouraged students with an interest in journalism to follow their passion. She said the profession is a critical part of the nation's society.

At the event, the CEW also awarded the Carol Hollenshead Award to Chemistry Prof. Carol Fierke, the Chemistry Department’s chair, and to Carol Hutchins, head coach of the women’s softball team. The award recognizes individuals at the University who promote equity and social change. Athletic Director Dave Brandon spoke briefly at the event to honor Hutchins, noting her fight for gender equality for female student-athletes through Title IX regulations.

Kahn was filled with mostly faculty, staff and community members, though some students did attend.

LSA senior Mark Chou said he was intrigued by Abramson’s sense of responsibility to keep quality journalism sustainable. When asked whether he thinks members of his generation will be willing to pay for their news, Chou was unsure.

“We download movies, TV shows, and I think that’s something we’re going to have to think about,” Chou said. "Either we’ll change the system or the system will have to adapt.”

Chou said young adults are too often portrayed as illiterate media consumers, solely looking to social media for their news. He pointed out a failed effort to provide free issues of the Times to students as a way to improve media literacy on campus.

“I think what we’re reading on the side isn’t publicized, and that’s when we are reading the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, but we don’t talk about that as much,” Chou said. “More could be done on our campus to get us to read more high-quality journalism.”