Leadership & Management

Jill Abramson: Learn Resilience and Don’t Overcompensate

The former New York Times executive editor discusses the future of media and double standards.

July 14, 2015

| by Bill Snyder

Not all careers have an unbroken upward trajectory. After decades of increasingly responsible positions at the Legal Times, Wall Street Journal, and New York Times, Jill Abramson became the first woman to lead the Times’ newsroom as executive editor in September 2011. Her tenure lasted less than three years (and eight Pulitzer Prizes) before she was ousted. Commenting on her firing, Abramson told a group of Stanford Graduate School of Business students, “Some of you are going to get fired in the course of your career. Work on that resilience thing.”


Former New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson |Stacy Geiken Photography

Abramson obviously has. Just days after her firing in 2014, she gave a commencement address at Wake Forest University. Soon after, she inked a $1 million book deal and is a founder of a yet unnamed news organization that will publish long-form investigative journalism. Abramson spoke about the role of women in management and the future of the news industry at a View From the Top event on May 21.

Don’t Overcompensate

Abramson was known as a hard-charging, demanding executive, and when she was fired some critics labeled her style as “abrasive” and even “bitchy.” Abramson, who explicitly denied being fired because she is a woman, said that the many years she spent as the only female in a roomful of male managers might have led her to overcompensate. What could she have done better? “Listen more,” she says.

The Double Standard Lives

When women are in leadership roles, stylistic and personal issues sometimes come to the fore, says Abramson: “The qualities that are seen in a negative light when applied to women leaders are sometimes seen as successful traits in men.”

Focus on the Key Issue

Some of you are going to get fired in the course of your career. Work on that resilience thing.
Jill Abramson

It’s not effective, says Abramson, to try to change too many things at the same time. Instead, be clear on what must be changed first and make that a priority. But when you identify a part of the business that needs to be transformed, “you should be pretty forthright and kind of kick-ass about trying to make change,” she says.

Learn to Write Well

Being able to craft a clear, gripping narrative is an essential skill in business as well as journalism, Abramson says: “Narrative has incredible power. It is a skill that can be monetized.”

Local and States News Coverage is Failing

While papers like the Times and the Wall Street Journal still have the resources to conduct significant reporting around the world, local and regional papers have suffered as classified advertising fled to the web. As a result, says Abramson, they no longer have the ability to fulfill their roles as watchdogs at the local and state levels. “There are literally state legislatures and city councils going uncovered now,” she says.

New Business Models are Emerging

Not all is bleak in the world of journalism. New business models are emerging, says Abramson. Nonprofits like the Texas Tribune, which has a newsroom of about 50 journalists, are springing up. Even sites like BuzzFeed, best known for fluffy pieces and “listicles,” now have investigative reporters on their staffs and are doing serious work.

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