Notes From a Hired Pen

The Bitch Editor: Jill Abramson and why I left editing

I was a junior when I took over as editor in chief of my college’s newspaper. I knew it would be a challenge. We were a weekly paper at a school that, at the time, had no journalism major, and most of our staff and writers were volunteers. I had been the commentary and then features editor my sophomore year and was surprised to get the nod to run the paper as a junior. I was excited. I had plans. I thought we were good but could do much better.

So right out of the gate, I set up some rules, simple things like stories had to be turned in on time; sections had to be edited and ready for copy edit on time; that if you bailed on an assignment, you’d have to copy edit for two issues before I gave you a chance again; and that while smoking was allowed in the section editors’ shared office, it was not allowed in my office or the general staff area (yes, people smoked in school buildings in ye olden days of 2000, though the school put a stop to that by my senior year).

The response? Revolt. People quit. The staff editors ignored my deadlines. One staffer even started sending what he thought were anonymous letters to the editor about what a terrible person I was because of how I ran the newspaper (it got so bad that I reported him to campus authorities for harassment).

When I talked to the paper’s advisor, he sat me down and said this: “If you were a man, they’d call you assertive. But because you’re not, you’re a bitch.”

He didn’t say this maliciously. It was, in fact, just fact. He told me I wasn’t going to change them in a year, so if I wanted to win them over, I had to have a bit more finesse.

Now, I’m sure that as a 20-year-old, I didn’t have the best managerial skills. I’m not sure any 20-year-old does. But the entire experience was incredibly frustrating, especially when I was almost ousted as editor my senior year because of my “management style.” I did get my job back, though, because of the quality of my work. That year we went on to win a state journalism award for best overall small newspaper and I was a finalist in a national award for editorial writing. I thought maybe the entire thing was a symptom of our young age, that we were students trying to act as adults, and that friction was inevitable.

But the same thing happened to me again after graduate school when I briefly edited a regional magazine. I set deadlines, and writers and staffers revolted when I held them to it.

So I quit editing. I refused to continue to push up against the force of people telling me that I should be nicer, kinder, more understanding. The only thing I understood were my deadlines, and that if someone blew one, the entire issue was in jeopardy. I also enjoy writing, and think that I’m a stronger writer than editor, but I didn’t give myself the chance to find out because I was tired of wasting my energy on trying to both run a publication right and being the nice, pretty, kind girl that people expected me to be. As I said in my first journalism job interview, “I don’t take shit from anyone.” That attitude is a better match for me as a writer than editor.

I’d like to think there’s a big difference between the New York Times today and a student newspaper run by kids at a private university in Florida 14 years ago, or between a regional magazine in South Jersey, but this episode is ugly and unsettling, as are all the follow up blog posts and articles and tweets from current and former female editors who have experienced the same thing. And for full disclosure: I have also been writing for the New York Times since 2005 and I have had nothing but good experiences working for the publication. I also doubt that I’m paid less than male freelancers (because if you read this blog, you know that I negotiate everything).

I don’t have a solution except to throw my experience on the pile. I love being a freelance writer, but one big reason I do what I do is because of what happened to me earlier in my career. If someone thinks I’m a bitch, that’s fine. Here, though, they can’t fire me for it.

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One Response to “The Bitch Editor: Jill Abramson and why I left editing”

  1. Holly says:

    I was also editor of my college newspaper. While we had a J program, many of the students were still volunteers, unpaid interns or if fortunate – received the smallest little stipend for their work. I have many memories of trying to motivate our team and the challenges that came along.

    But it was such a wonderful experience, gave me many cherished memories and a shining star on my resume! I remember buying the staff pizza and throwing quarterly parties to help morale. Things like that worked wonders for college students!

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