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Jill Abramson, former executive editor of The New York Times, describes what life was like for a journalist in the 1980s – a “stone age” when news was governed by the printing press schedule.Today, many journalists will break stories on Twitter before writing it, eliminating nuance and increasing the chance of error.Social media in particular has added a fatal speed to journalism. Errors erode public trust in the media, and allow those in power to undermine the free press.
Jill Abramson is journalist who who has served in the most senior editorial positions at The New York Times, where she was the first woman to serve as Washington Bureau Chief, Managing Editor and Executive Editor. She is also an English lecturer at Harvard University and an author. Her latest book, “Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts,” will be released on February 5.
JILL ABRAMSON: The expectation of really all people now is that they’re going to know what happened the instant it happens. And that’s great when the information is accurate. I think the downside of just so many stories circulating at any given microsecond is that people feel somewhat overwhelmed by news and it’s hard to focus your attention on what stories are most important when they’re exploding at you.
Usually now reporters break their stories on Twitter before they’ve even written a finished story. First, that nuance and perspective and analysis can be completely lost in that first quick and dirty version. But worse, there can be big factual mistakes which has contributed to the very low trust numbers that all news media companies have right now, which is very distressing to me because it opens the door for President Trump to rant about fake news and call journalists the enemies of the people, when they’re like the heroes of the people, because they risk their lives to dig out the information that is vital for people to know. When I started as a reporter, in the Stone Age of course, the newsroom was I always thought it would be like Jimmy Olsen and Superman, and that you’d hear typewriters clacking and people shouting. And I was surprised at how quiet at least the Wall Street Journal’s newsroom in Washington was. And there was no internet at that point. And the rhythm of the day was usually in the morning and through the afternoon, you were out reporting. You were finding sources, going to hearings, meeting secretly with people who might give you documents. And really you only got around to writing your story at about 6:00 PM. And the deadline, you could set your watch by it every night, was around 9:00 because the rhythm of newspapering was completely governed by when the presses rolled. And they only rolled once a day unless the Earth blew up and then you stop the presses and replayed it. But it was a slow pace. And the Journal, when I joined up, didn’t even have a weekend paper. So Friday, it was really an easy day because the next paper was Monday.
And that all changed in the late 1990s with the advent of the internet. And the Wall Street Journal was one of the first newspapers to create an online version of itself. And that meant that the printing presses didn’t figure into when your story went up. Although in the early years, it was ridiculous, it was true at The Times, too – we maintained that same schedule of just doing one final story a day at night and then having it posted on the web, for years. But the advent of social media completely changed that. And what had become a much faster pace where at The Times we were posting early versions of any important story on NYTimes.com. And with social media it was the instantaneous report. Like, get something up on social media to begin attracting the eyeballs before you even have a story up on the website. That began to actually scare me when I became Washington bureau chief of The Times, and the Supreme Court had just – it was night time – decided Bush v Gore decided what would happen next, if anything, and who would be president. And the instant TV analysis on CNN and other cable outlets was wrong. And Linda Greenhouse, she was The Times’ totally experienced, brilliant Supreme Court reporter, rushed back to the office. She had read the decision in a cab. And the first thing she said to us when she arrived was, turn off the TV. Because she knew they were blathering idiocy. An…
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