Women make better journalists but are hit by sexist double standards in leadership positions, a former executive editor of The New York Times says.

Jill Abramson addressed topics from regulating Facebook to Joe Biden's nomination chances ("it feels to me like this is not his time") during a meeting with the Herald newsroom today.

The first woman executive editor of the New York Times was asked if women make better reporters. Yes, she replied.

"I think women in general are better listeners. And, in my reporting life, it is always when I have been just listening that you have that, 'Ah hah' piece of information that makes your story."


Abramson started in journalism during the Watergate scandal and rose to be executive editor at The New York Times. However, within three years she was sacked.

That wasn't because she was a woman, she told the Herald newsroom. But she did encounter double-standards.

"When you are more outspoken, when you are forceful in your views about what's a good story and what isn't...I was seen as pushy. Too pushy. Too aggressive, etcetera. And I think I was absolutely no different than any of my predecessors."

Abramson is in New Zealand to appear at the Auckland Writers Festival this weekend . Her book, Merchants of Truth: Inside the News Revolution, details how four news organisations negotiated what she terms the "age of anxiety" - plunging revenue and newspaper circulation that caused 60 per cent of the US newspaper workforce to be laid off since 2000.

Abramson profiled The New York Times and The Washington Post, as well as digital media companies BuzzFeed and Vice - relatively new companies that harnessed Facebook and Google to build massive audiences, and in doing so gave legacy media "serious competition - and heartburn".

However, both old and new guard have faced the same central problem: tech companies like Facebook using automated systems to capture most of the online advertising market.

Abramson was at the The New York Times when it responded by reintroducing a paywall, a step that was in her view "a gutsy, save-the-company decision".

The current US president has helped by driving subscription numbers and ratings on news channels like CNN, all while calling media "the enemies of the people" and producers of "fake news". It wasn't clear if this "Trump bump" would outlast his presidency, Abramson said.

"I certainly hope the big ratings and digital circulation sign-ups continue. But I'm certainly not sure they will...the [media] owners will miss him. Because he has been raining money on them."

Talking to former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson on journalism in the "age of anxiety", social media and the "Trump bump." Interviewer / Nicholas Jones

A steady diet of polarisation

No president has been remotely like Donald Trump, Abramson said, who "is making it up as he goes along": "the line between truth and falsehood just seems so blurry right now, which to me is incredibly upsetting".

The US was incredibly polarised, something made worse by Facebook, "the world's biggest publisher", which used algorithms to put a narrower range of news in front of users.

"It feeds you a steady diet of how you [already] see things - on politicians and issues...Facebook has so polarised the audience for news that you have two different sets of facts, radically different opinion, and two realities. It is very unhealthy for democracy."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has this week led the "Christchurch call" summit in France, pushing for stronger measures against social media hate speech. Abramson said it would be difficult to rein-in Facebook.

"They say they are trying to police the content on their platform more forcefully. But these scandals keep erupting...I think they are vulnerable to anti-trust law, and that might be a way to break them up or hold them to higher standards.

"The thing I worry about most with Facebook and Google, frankly, is they are gobbling up 90 per cent of new digital advertising...economically, they are having a terrible effect on news."

Plagiarism claim

Shortly after the release of Merchants of Truth Abramson was accused of plagiarism after a Vice correspondent listed passages in the book that resembled parts of articles written by others. In response, Abramson promised to fix what she said were sourcing errors, but denied plagiarism.

Talking to former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson on journalism in the "age of anxiety", social media and the "Trump bump." Interviewer / Nicholas Jones

"There are 834 source citations in my book, 70 pages of them," she told the Herald. "I made a mistake in one small portion of the book about Vice, in somehow missing six things that should have been properly footnoted.

"But it's a flaw in my book and I wanted my book to be perfect. So I'm unhappy with myself for that."

One of the most revealing chapters in Merchants of Truth deals with her departure from The New York Times, after tensions over the organisation's direction, her management style and the way she had gone about a potential hire.

In the book, she wrote that there was no simple reason for the firing, and acknowledged mistakes and being a "less than stellar manager".

However, she believed a major factor was her resistance to growing pressure to "lower the wall" between the business and journalism sides of the organisation, such as through "native advertising", when adverts are written in the style of articles.

Jill Abramson's new book looks at how news organisations dealt with the move to online news. Photo / Dean Purcell
Jill Abramson's new book looks at how news organisations dealt with the move to online news. Photo / Dean Purcell

'Balls like iron cantaloupes'

Abramson also wrote of an "unfair double standard" often applying to women leaders. There was newsroom excitement after she became the first woman executive editor, Abramson wrote, but she was also aware her appointment was not universally popular.

"I was seen as playing favourites and as being overconfident of my opinions. I had a bad habit of cutting people off and didn't listen enough. In short, I was seen as 'pushy'.

"This last perception is a familiar refrain about women in powerful jobs...qualities that are seen as leadership in men are seen negatively - as being overly ambitious - in women."

Being a woman could influence compliments, too. A mentor of Abramson had told a reporter she "had balls like iron cantaloupes", she recalled in the book: "A heartfelt compliment that nonetheless captured the gender disparities still pervasive in the media."

Are things improving? Not really, Abramson told the Herald.

"In the US, the number of women top editors and news anchors and all that, it has actually gone down in the past 10 years. So things are not really changing that much - at least the picture at the very top."

Jill Abramson at the Auckland Writers Festival

The former New York Times executive editor has two events this weekend:

'Merchants of Truth' , Saturday May 18, 5.30pm
'Animal Tales' , Sunday May 19, 10am