November 2, 2014

Former New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson shed light this weekend on her plans with Steven Brill to grow a start up.

Writers will be paid advances around $100,000 to produce stories that will be longer than long magazine articles but shorter than books, she said. There will be “one perfect whale of a story” each month and it will be available by subscription.

She discussed her plans during an hour-long keynote interview at Journalism & Women Symposium’s annual Conference and Mentoring Project. She declined to name any funders. She and Brill haven’t settled on a name yet.

She first talked about this venture two weeks ago during a WBUR event with David Carr. Brill is an award-winning long-form journalist who created Court TV, and is most recently known for his 26,000 word investigation on health care billing that became the longest piece by a single author ever run by Time Magazine. Brill has also had failed projects.

In response to a question at the end of the breakfast keynote interview for the crowd at JAWS Camp 2014, Abramson did say that she and Brill were very close to having a deal with one investor.

“If you are offering the ability to deliver something that is qualitatively different, there are investors willing to jump into that space,” she said. “We have had serious discussions with fewer than five and had serious interest from about 15” potential investors.

One of the five serious candidates isn’t a media company at all, she said, but has a principal that has done some media investment.

The attendees at the annual event, held this year in Palm Springs, Calif. wanted to know how to get a piece of that action. Abramson told them to pitch a great idea and demonstrate the ability to deliver on it.

Good luck with that.

Other notable comments from Abramson include:

  • She definitely got fired and part of it had to do with her conversations around salary inequity. She wished she would have negotiated her starting salary as executive editor better. “Silly me.”
  • Newspaper advertising revenue declines are going to continue to be “frighteningly steep.”
  • Superficiality in news is not something she worries about but lack of proportionality is. She pointed to Ebola coverage specifically on cable television and said, “Because of the economics of news, very few places can have boots on the ground. Then single stories tend to dominate, where news people are just recycling things resulting in an endless yackathon on what I think is garbage.”
  • She’s proud of her work diversifying The Times’ masthead and pointed out that the Washington Post has an all-male masthead and suggested that Katharine Graham is spinning in her grave.
  • “Hillary Clinton would make a good president.” Abramson said she enjoyed being unfettered enough to say that.
  • Bitchy vs. badass? “Badass of course.”
  • Her advice to women leaders: Do not “get all tangled up inside your head. Am I coming across too pushy? Do I have to be sweeter and nicer? Because basically authenticity is very important in life, not just at work. You can say I paid a price for my own authenticity. I was who I am. I tried not to be too blunt or hurtful to people.”

After her speech I asked her what newsroom leaders should do who inherit pay inequalities, but lack the ability to give raises. “You bring the guys down to give a little more to the girls,” she said. “I did that at The Times. No one’s happy to get a cut, but too bad.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect spelling of Hillary Clinton’s name.

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Kelly McBride is a journalist, consultant and one of the country’s leading voices on media ethics and democracy. She is senior vice president and chair…
Kelly McBride

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