The third setting is The Washington Post, where our story begins with the company’s earnest patriarch, Donald E. Graham — clumsily betting on local news even as the revenue attached to it dries up, and cannily betting on Mark Zuckerberg, who reneges on a handshake deal that would have given Graham a stake in Zuckerberg’s fledgling company. Abramson describes Zuckerberg lying on a bathroom floor and crying with guilt after the betrayal. In retrospect, it’s hard not to think that the young C.E.O. would have been better off keeping his word and choosing the sensible, moral journalist over the venture capitalists.
Eventually Graham sells to one of the few men richer than Zuckerberg, and the paper begins its new life. An engraving in the newsroom appears after Jeff Bezos takes over with the mantra “What’s dangerous is not to evolve.” The message is exactly right for the industry, and it works. Bezos focuses on the product and engineering departments at The Post, making the pages fast to load and the stories easy to read across platforms. Editorially, it essentially takes the inverse model of BuzzFeed, serving a side of clickbait with a main course of serious journalism. Most everything works, and soon after Bezos arrives The Post has even more readers than The Times.
Last of course is The New York Times, a story that benefits immensely from Abramson’s inside dirt, her genuine admissions about the errors she made and the obvious delight she takes in settling scores. In fact, nothing seems to please her as much as the moments when she can stick her knives into Dean Baquet. At one point, she tells the tale of a reporter named Eric Lichtblau. He was upset that a piece of his on Trump and Russia had been delayed, and then watered down. After The Times’s public editor weighed in, Baquet emailed Lichtblau: “I hope your colleagues rip you a new asshole.” Abramson then publishes another internal email from Baquet that she’s been given, this one complaining about Times reporters who had disclosed confidential conversations about the Lichtblau article. “I guess I’m disappointed that this ended up in print,” Baquet writes — a message that Abramson herself has now immortalized in print. It’s hard to know who has the moral high ground in this fight. But I do look forward to the Abramson sections whenever Baquet writes his own memoirs.
As the book ends, the digital pioneers are in tatters. Vice has lost its swagger amid its sexual harassment scandals and its readership is in decline. Facebook has abandoned BuzzFeed, and much of the rest of the publishing industry. Peretti, who has always seemed to know where the media are headed before the rest of the media, seems temporarily as shellshocked as his peers.
Meanwhile, the winners appear to be The Post and, even more so, The New York Times. Or as Abramson writes in the conclusion, “Of all the executives who had faced the ferocious waters of the digital revolution, Arthur Sulzberger Jr. had come closest to crossing to safety.” And the reason for his success comes from developing new products that depended on both the reporting and business sides, and following the metric charts that told the paper what stories to run.
It’s the ultimate irony: Jill Abramson was, indirectly at least, fired because of her resistance to the “innovation report.” And now she’s produced a marvelous book about exactly how prescient the darn thing was.