A Day With Jill Abramson

I had a chance to interview Jill Abramson when she visited Bowdoin College to give a lecture about her experience working at The New York Times. I attended an open Q&A session with Ms. Abramson, and afterwards, Ms. Abramson generously agreed to have a one-on-one conversation with me.

HC: How did your interest in writing and journalism start?  Was there someone or something that really ignited your passion?JA: “Well, there was someone very early in my career that inspired me. I had started doing journalism when I was an undergraduate at Harvard (just writing for one of the campus publications), and I then had the opportunity to cover Harvard on a part-time basis for Time Magazine. They then had what were called “Campus Stringers” that were like part-time reporters, and my boss for that job was a woman named Sandy Burton. She was the Boston bureau chief for Time Magazine. She just showed so much interest in me and my work when I was still an undergraduate at Harvard, and that made a huge difference in my early career. She had me go up to New Hampshire to cover the New Hampshire Presidential Primary. Now, I had never done anything like that, and she just sort of made me unafraid to tackle any kind of assignment. She had a lot of confidence in me, and that can make a big difference. Of course, I thought, ‘Oh great, the world of news and journalism must have all of these dynamic women as the bosses,’ but I never worked for a woman again for the rest of my career."

HC: You had mentioned earlier in the open discussion with Bowdoin students that you had started off as a very shy person, but women who are in high-ranking positions such as yours are often thought of as being fast-talking, intense women who “get things done.”  Do you think this is an accurate representation of the women in these positions?JA: “No. I’ll still sometimes think, ‘Ooh, I really don’t want to make this call. This is a call where I have to ask really uncomfortable questions to someone.’ I have to work myself up to it, even after all these years. Sometimes, when I’m working on a story, I like to hide with my research and just keep tunneling and reading things, because then I can avoid making an uncomfortable call. But then… you just have to tag yourself into it.”

HC: Was there ever a time you doubted whether you should continue on your career path?JA: “I think when I was an undergraduate –which was a relative Stone Age (I graduated from Harvard in 1976) – I was so much less serious about what my career would be than you all are, than my students at Harvard were, or the students that I taught at Yale were. They were all much more sophisticated and so much more focused on what they would be doing after they got out of college. The reasons are, I think, pretty obvious: the contraction of the economy and the fact that college education has gotten so expensive. I think there is a lot of pressure to make your amazing education “pay off” in some way. But right now, a big worry of mine is that that pressure discourages students from majoring in the humanities. I’m such a humanities person. I think studying Shakespeare or art or music is so fabulous and so mind-expanding. It gives you the tools for a lifetime of enjoyment; and it worries me that the numbers of humanities concentrators are going down. I’m not denigrating studying [subjects like] economics, biology, or computer science, but I think the popularity of those majors is related to the perception that they’re a ticket to getting a job after school. And I get it, I just wish that [studying] the humanities didn’t have to be a casualty of that pressure.”  

HC: In all of the different roles that you’ve played in your life, what were some of the ways that you overcame or compensated for your weaknesses?JA: “I’m not sure I did. I think it’s healthy for everyone to be self-critical. I still have some of the traits (that were not necessarily good traits) that I had very early in my career. I’m impatient, which isn’t a productive way to work with people. I can interrupt – that’s part of having an impatient mind that speeds ahead – and I’m not sure if I ever, to be honest with you, learned to compensate for that. That’s just part of the package, I fear.”

HC: What trait do you think is most valuable for young adults who are trying to figure out what they want to do after graduating college?JA: “I think what you have to learn is how to be resilient. How to bounce back from a setback. I’m not at all embarrassed that I was fired. It doesn’t bother me at all to use that word. Most people do get fired from something in their lives, and it isn’t such an awful, stigmatizing thing. It's a test, and it gives you an opportunity to show what you’re made of. That's when you have to show your character. That’s where some of the things that you've learned at Bowdoin (and you might not even know that you've learned them) are going to come in handy and will serve you well.”

HC: Earlier you had also mentioned that being a woman had sometimes negatively influenced how others viewed some of your actions—did you feel as though these obstacles colored much of your professional experience?JA: “I mean, yes, there are different obstacles when you’re a woman who wants to occupy one of the top jobs, but I think there are advantages to being a woman too, to be honest. The arc of my career coincided with a period where news organizations were under legal pressure to hire more women, and that certainly gave me an advantage.” 

HC: You stated that while you were the Executive Editor for the New York Times, you were very open about your goal to increase the number of females in senior positions.  How do you achieve that goal when some may think that a male candidate may be better suited for a particular position?JA: “I wouldn’t like to think that I’d ever pick the second best person because of either their gender or ethnicity. But in journalism, the goal is to cover the world. I think you need to reflect some of the diversity of the world in order achieve that goal, and that informs my hiring and promotion decisions.”

HC: How do you feel knowing that there’s a Wikipedia page dedicated to you?JA: “Yeah, it’s funny. I’m trying to think if I’ve ever looked at my Wikipedia page. I’m pleasantly surprised that I end up looking at Wikipedia a lot. I think [Wikipedia has] gotten much more accurate over the years. When I first taught at Yale in the beginning of 2006, I was like, ‘Don’t use Wikipedia!’ I think my attitude has changed. To answer your question, though, it seems weird to me, on one hand, that there’s a Wikipedia page [about me], but kind of cool on the other hand. When I was in Bowdoin’s student union, there was a poster with my picture about my lecture, and part of me thinks, ‘Why would anyone come to hear a goofball like me talk about anything?’ Inside, you’re still always the goofy kid who wasn’t ready for summer camp, or whatever. On the other hand, I was the first woman to be executive editor at the Times, and that’s my little place in history. I’m very proud of that.”

HC: At what point in your career did you feel like you had achieved “success”?JA: "In 1994, I published a book about Justice Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill. We had spent nearly four years investigating that story. At the time, everybody said that we would never know the truth of what happened, and we got to the truth. I felt an incredible sense of achievement from that [book]. The book was a national finalist for the book award that year, and it got on the Times’ bestseller list. Those were the 'marks' of success, but it was the first time that I felt like my work was the best work that I could have possibly have done, and that made me feel very gratified.”

Ally is currently a junior at Bowdoin College majoring in neuroscience. She is compulsively drawn to multi-colored designs and objects, various running gear, and skimming interesting scientific journals. Few know of her secret succulent, Lucy, that resides and thrives in her dorm bathroom. Lucy is the longest known plant under Ally's care.