Times’s Jill Abramson: Dog Nut, Norse Deity

The profiles are rolling in

Almost a week after The New York Times announced that executive editor Bill Keller was stepping down and Jill Abramson was stepping up, the inevitable profiles are beginning to trickle through. (She really likes dogs.) Today, The Guardian, The New York Observer, and WWD each offer their takes on the Times’s new head honcho. Which True Manhattan Story you should read really depends on what you want to know about Ms. Abramson.

If you care about Twitter, authority, and all things digital

Ed Pilkington at The Guardian does a good job explaining the significance of Abramson’s new post to UK readers: “as close as it gets to royalty in America, discounting the president and Lady GaGa.” And for my money, if you want a neat summary of the challenges Abramson faces stepping into the job after Keller, Pilkington’s the man to read. He homes in on the Times’s mixed digital record and gets Abramson’s take.

On the one hand, on 6 September Abramson will inherit a paper that is second to none in terms of its global internet reach. Its readership, measured as monthly unique users, now stands at 46 million worldwide, which is testament to its winning combination of superb traditional reporting and an impressive modern array of multi- media offerings and blogs.

But the Times has also been criticised for being sluggish when it comes to developing its internet community of readers by embracing the openness and interactivity of the web.

“I would say that’s fair,” Abramson concurs. “We are now on that case heavily in terms of using social media for reporting and to make the Times a platform for people to gather. In some ways, on breaking news our greatest competitor can be Twitter.”

Pilkington plugs away at the Twitter issue, a topic that became somewhat hotter this year after Keller began what seemed like a mini-crusade against the technology. Abramson, for the record, only recently set up a Twitter account for herself.

Isn’t it a bit weird, I suggest, that the next editor of America’s most important paper, the person vested with the crucial task of steering it through a period of unparalleled digital change, hasn’t even yet sent her first tweet?

“It may be weird,” she says. “But I haven’t felt the need until now. I’m an interior kind of person.”

She seeks to dig herself out of this hole by promising to step up the pace of digital innovation. She’s got herself an iPad, she says, and says she loves the Huffington Post’s iPad app. “It’s really jazzy.” She also name-checks Arianna Huffington, the website’s charismatic founder. “I’ve known her since the early 90s in Washington and she has invented a site that is interesting a lot of the time. I went and spent a day at the HuffPo and had a lovely lunch with Arianna.”

Pilkington also draws some interesting thoughts from Abramson on the notion of the Times as an all-knowing Sauron’s eye of news. She tells him: “Nobody wants a unitary voice of authority any more. Readers are sceptical about our authority, I’m very aware of that. It’s a question of engaging more than we might have years ago. Our readers are an unbelievable resource to us and yes we have to be more energetic and creative about leveraging the beauty of our online audience.” Changing times, folks.

Other highlights from Pilkington’s piece center around Abramson’s now famed “New Yorker-ness.” Completists will be excited to know that Abramson has a tattoo of a New York subway token on her right shoulder, complete with the phrase “Good for one fare only,” one of the new editor’s life philosophies. And Pilkington manages one of the most vivid descriptions of a New York accent I’ve read for some time: “a nasal drawl in which the vowels are stretched to breaking point like an elastic band. So ‘out’ becomes ‘iouuut’, and ‘now’ ‘niouuuw’, a bit-with all due respect to her beloved dogs-like the mewing of a cat.”

If you care about career trajectories, families, and Norse gods

Playing on Abramson’s line last Thursday that her new posting feels like “ascending to Valhalla,” The New York Observer’s Kat Stoeffel colorfully traces Abramson’s rise from Steve Brill’s legal publications to the top of the town. Stoeffel manages to get an incredible amount of detail, speaking to members of Abramson’s family about her career and home life, and outlining her friendships with Maureen Dowd and Jane Mayer. “She had great skirts,” Mayer says at one point, recalling her schooldays with Abramson.

It will surely feel like too much information to those who grumble about the celebrity-fication of the magazine editor—structurally, this feels like a Meryl Streep profile—but this is the Observer. It’s their town, this their beat, and they do it very well. And Stoeffel manages to connect her stories of the Abramson family dynamic to the challenges that mom faces in her new position. Here she is writing about concerns over how Abramson will handle the Times’s digital operations and ensure standards remain, well, standard, across the outlets numerous platforms. The Griggs quoted is Abramson’s daughter, Cornelia Griggs.

Here, Ms. Abramson’s split editorial personalities—the three books she’s written are a feminist history, a nonfiction book of political and judicial analysis and a puppy memoir, after all—could give her the fluency to mesh the Times’s disparate operations.

It helps to have a family full of digital natives. After Ms. Abramson bought her daughter a Times subscription, Ms. Griggs told her to cancel it a year later. “I was just recycling it,” Ms. Griggs said. She’s part of the generation that consumes all its news online or on mobile, she added. She and her boyfriend, who works in technology in New York, generate ideas and feedback for Ms. Abramson. She thinks engaging the online community in a savvier way should be a priority for the Times.

Stoeffel offers a hint too at what it might mean to have “the first woman” at the helm of the Times.

Ms. Abramson has a reputation for spotting and developing talent, especially among women. She lured star Washington reporter Helene Cooper from the Journal. She mentors younger female reporters and editors in the newsroom and offers casual guidance to her daughter’s friends in the industry. And she routinely pings Ms. Mayer when an issue of The New Yorker comes out without a single female byline.

For those who want the goss on Abramson, Keller, and… Dowd

John Koblin at WWD takes a different approach. His is not a profile of Abramson but a consideration of how her reign might differ from Keller’s. The Times is as leaky a ship as ever and Koblin gets some good value from anonymous sources describing two very different approaches to editing. The gist: Keller was the strong silent type; Abramson strong and not-so-silent. Koblin focuses less on the challenges Abramson faces than the style with which she will face them.

There’s this:

“With Jill, it’s more about her,” said one senior editor at the Times, who requested anonymity. “When Bill is in the room, he sits there quietly. He doesn’t inject himself in the conversation, whereas Jill talks about herself or people that she knows. She’s just a much bigger presence in a meeting.” 

And it isn’t just in meetings, either. 

The source said that Abramson is “a lot more like Howell Raines,” the strong-willed executive editor before Keller who was pushed out of the paper after the Jayson Blair scandal (the irony in that, of course, is that Abramson and Raines famously feuded when he ran the paper and she ran the Washington bureau).

And then this:

“‘He just doesn’t care’” was a phrase heard over and over again from editors in the building — “unless they worked in foreign and perhaps metro,” said a Times source, referring to Keller. “The bored look on his face during many page one meetings was a signal to all in the room that he clearly wished he was elsewhere. Jill cares deeply, for better or worse, and will likely be a very hands-on executive editor.”

Koblin also dishes on a rumor around Eighth Ave that Maureen Dowd might be put in charge of the Washington bureau ahead of more obvious choices. For whispers and musings like that, Koblin’s your man.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor. Tags: , , , , , ,