“It’s a juicy narrative about four news organizations—the New York Times, the Washington Post, BuzzFeed, and Vice—over the last decade of turmoil,” says Jill Abramson of her latest book, Merchants of Truth: The Business of Facts and the Future of News (S&S, Jan. 2019). A political columnist for the Guardian and senior lecturer at Harvard University, the former New York Times executive editor investigates how digital media almost led to the demise of two legendary American newspapers while creating two new media superstars for millennials.
In a media landscape overflowing with news outlets, Abramson says that she decided to focus on just four because she was inspired by David Halberstam’s The Powers That Be. “He wrote about a different moment in history, the time after Watergate, and looked at the rise of four organizations—Time Inc., the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and CBS—that were then at the zenith of their power. I loved going back and forth between them and wanted to use that structure for my book.”
Abramson says that she selected the New York Times and the Washington Post because “they’ve both struggled over the last decade to become digital first. Vice because they did the pivot to video earlier than almost anyone else and their cofounder, Shane Smith, boldly proclaimed that he’d be shoving CNN off the stage.” She chose BuzzFeed because its CEO, Jonah Peretti, “is the foremost expert in how information spreads virally and the first to recognize the potential of Facebook to be the most powerful publisher known to man. BuzzFeed built a very formidable news organization on the back of Facebook and speaks to a younger digital-savvy audience.”
This new media landscape is difficult for anyone attempting to publish for today’s very polarized audience, notes Abramson. “Americans on both the right and left are fearful and anxious. We who inhabit the two coasts don’t appreciate that. But it’s true. And we have a new president who is not a believer in the First Amendment, and [that amendment] is the first for a very important reason. The founders were deathly afraid of centralized power and depended on authors and journalists to hold power accountable.”