Sunday, September 25, 2016


Jill Abramson never wants to run a newsroom again.

And with a new five-year agreement to continue teaching journalism at Harvard University, the former executive editor of The New York Times won’t have to for a while. 

“I never want to run anything again in any sphere, whether it’s media or any place else. I don’t want to manage people ever again,” Abramson, 62, said in a recent interview. “Because, A, I don’t think it plays to my strengths, what I love most is writing and reading and interviewing people. That is why I got into journalism in the first place.

“The other side of it, the running people and being a manager, I’ve done it in three different venues ... I’m done with it,” she added.

It’s been two years since Abramson left the Times after a rocky tenure that lasted less than three years and included some internal battles over news approaches and reportedly her complaints that her pension and pay were less than her male predecessors.

Her firing also raised concerns that she was being unfairly criticized as “pushy” and “brusque” because she is a woman and that no male editor would be so vilified.

Despite that she said she still “roots for the Times” every day in its news mission, although she admits still having some mixed memories.

“It’s like the rest of life, the honest answer to the question, do I have bad memories? Sure,” Abramson said. “That tends to be true for much of life, the bad memories are completely outweighed by the good … working with reporters on fantastic enterprise and investigative stories that did help change the world or change important institutions in key ways.

“The fun of helping oversee journalism projects and to be in the hunt with reporters is what I loved about being editor,” she said.

And she is not completely out of the news game, writing a regular column on the political world for The Guardian, and writing a book on the transition of news to digital.

“The freedom of being able to sort of control my own workload and not be running from meeting to meeting, which was basically my life certainly as executive editor,” Abramson recalls. “I was scheduled in half-hour segments, it’s much better for me to be the master of my own time and to be free to really dig in to subjects.”

And another new venture is being a grandmother for the first time to 11-month-old Eloise, her daughter’s first-born. Abramson said she lives with her daughter and son-in-law, both surgeons, and takes the youngster to and from day care each day.

“From what I can tell from many of my contemporaries who have senior editing jobs at important publications, so much of the work is related to the business model and coming up with new ideas for ‘innovation’ that isn’t my cup of tea,” she added. “I find the innovations themselves interesting to watch and observe, but working on business models myself is not playing to my strengths.”

She calls the Times an “irreplaceable institution and it still has, thank God, the resources to provide a banquet of fabulous news stories every day.”

And Abramson still has high praise for much of the news world.

“The best work I’ve ever seen is being done now, whether it's at Bill Keller’s Marshall Project or the Times, or The Washington Post is so great these days. The New Yorker, The Atlantic. At the top end, the work has never been better,” she adds. “I’m troubled by a number of developments in the news business generally. I think that the focus, that the line between advertising and content has gotten a little blurrier than I’m comfortable with. The need for massive audiences to attract advertising.”

Asked about the rise of conservative media, she said much of it is still within a small audience, but says the “echo chamber” can promote it further, which is a concern.

“There is an echo chamber where stories that start, let’s say on Breitbart, ricochet through that pipeline of different like-minded news organizations,” she said. “It ricochets in a more disciplined and powerful way on the right than on the left.”

Still, her main focus is teaching her students, who comprise two classes this semester in introduction to journalism and political journalism.

“I love it, the students are so interesting and full of enthusiasm and that’s why,” she said. “Harvard is a great institution. I went to Harvard as an undergraduate, I love the place.”

Friday, August 26, 2016


I was sad to hear of the death of Warren Hinckle, the outspoken, hard-writing, hard-drinking San Francisco journalism legend.

He was both a testament to muckraking journalism and a character of excess and outlandish behavior. Some praised his willingness to take on tough issues like Vietnam, the Catholic church and San Francisco politicians, while others decried his scattered writing, drinking and ruffled image.

I was glad to see that today's S.F. Chronicle gave him a prominent spot above the fold on Page One.

I got to know him in the 1990s during my four years at the S.F. Independent, a now-defunct citywide free paper that covered both city issues and local neighborhoods. Hinckle, with his ever-present eye-patch (the result of a childhood accident), had burned bridges at the S.F. Chronicle and S.F. Examiner and was now writing for our gritty small paper.

While I covered City Hall, I got to see him tweak local politicians and push his favorite issues. After helping to get Mayor Frank Jordan elected in 1991, he turned the tables on him, making the first outward request that former California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown run against Jordan.

Brown won in 1995 and again in 1999.

In between, we shared drinks at S.F. watering holes on a few occasions, and once in New York when I met up with him years later. At both the screwdrivers flowed.

Then there was Bentley, his companion basset hound that followed him to meetings, bars, City Hall hearings and more. With Bentley near death and needing to be "put down," Hinckle organized a "last supper" at Stars restaurant, among the top eateries in the city at the time. The menu: sparkling water and a premium hamburger.

I never had to edit Hinckle, which I learned quickly from others could be a nightmare for those who suffered his late deadlines, outlandish prose and bad spelling. But I did learn from him the need for newsmen to demand answers, anger the powers that be and challenge authority.

Bill Fazio
Once when I was under attack by a candidate for San Francisco District Attorney for writing a series of stories that exposed his corruption and questionable approach, Hinckle advised me to take it as an honor. When the candidate, Bill Fazio, lost, his brother, Joe Fazio, called and left a threatening message on my phone.

Joe Fazio also happened to be an investigator in the D.A.'s office, a job he soon lost for such criminal behavior.

One of my favorite possessions from those years is a copy of Hinckle's book, If You Have a Lemon, Make Lemonade. He signed it to me after an SF Weekly article on the Independent that wrongly re-hashed the Fazio incident referred to both of us as the paper's "political hitmen.
I lived in San Francisco from 1990 to 1997, a final era of much of the city's great news times. Along with Hinckle there was the Chronicle's legend Herb Caen, the famed three-dot columnist who personally led efforts on many issues; Examiner editor Phil Bronstein, who was a great mix of flamboyant character and smart newsman; and The Bay Guardian's Bruce Brugmann, who used to say the job of a newspaper is to "report the news and raise hell!" 

The city had a handful of great news sources that could compete and dig into all areas of politics, issues, culture, bohemia, and style. Much of that is gone with the Chronicle cut down in size and staff and most of the others either gone or reduced.

Journalism will likely not see the likes of Hinckle again for a while if at all. But I am glad that I at least got to see him in action. And never had to pick up the bar tab.

Monday, April 11, 2016


My favorite story of the week could be that of young Hilde Lysiak, the junior publisher of a hometown website in Selinsgrove, Pa.

The website, Orange Street News, and related print version, is the 9-year-old's own local news outlet.

She first got attention last fall when Columbia Journalism Review gave her some ink, saying she "provides a public service in a town without a dedicated local news outlet." 

Her stories have ranged from a missing cat to local vandalism.

You might have seen some more recent notice after she covered a local murder earlier this month.

When some criticized Hilde, and her mother for allowing her to work the crime beat rather than "play with dolls," she shot back:

Good for you Hilde, keep up the good work!