Abramson, a New Yorker down to her tattoo, takes over at N.Y. Times
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The ascension of Jill Abramson to the editor’s chair of the New York Times is both revolutionary and only a modest departure from the newspaper’s fusty leadership norms.
Abramson will break a barrier in September when she becomes the first female editor in the Times’ illustrious 160-year history. But she will also spring from a somewhat familiar mold--a commendable history inside the paper as a reporter and editor, most notably in the paper’s Washington bureau, long a crucible for forging Times leaders. Before that she worked at the Wall Street Journal.
The newspaper announced Thursday that Abramson, 57, will replace Bill Keller, 62, who led the Times for eight years following its most troubling scandal. Keller succeeded in restoring stability and renewing its luster as journalism’s top brand after a young reporter, Jayson Blair, had sullied both by lobbing concocted stories into the paper.
Abramson’s challenge will be to keep that momentum going, as the Times struggles to cope with the sweeping changes that continue to rip ad dollars away from newspapers--threatening to force reductions in one of the largest newsgathering staffs in America.
She’ll also have to learn the delicate public politics of leading one of the world’s most scrutinized news organizations. That skill seemed not so much in evidence in Abramson’s first quote for her own paper. She said that becoming editor was like “ascending to Valhalla.”
“In my house growing up, the Times substituted for religion,” she added. “If the Times said it, it was the absolute truth.”
That honest, heartfelt sentiment may have pleased her colleagues. But there’s another audience out there, already too ready and willing to believe the Times is populated by nothing but godless liberals. Abramson might have found another way to summarize her devotion to the paper.
That’s not to say that the new editor needs to be a shrinking violet, or think she will catch a break from some quarters, even if her public stands are impeccable.
Keller and the paper have, in recent weeks, signaled a new determination to face down rivals. With the launch of a column in the New York Times Magazine, the editor has taken to fierce dissection of, for instance, the Huffington Post and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
Keller found the former to be a showy and shallow aggregator of the content dug out by real news organizations. He found suspect not only Assange’s motivations and tactics, but made note of his bad body odor and lack of social graces.
The columns seemed to confirm what Keller had been telling friends for some time--that he really wanted to get back to writing full time.
Keller had a much-lauded career as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Russia and other locales and occasionally traveled overseas as editor to get a personal look at big stories. Come September, he will write for the paper’s Sunday magazine and its revamped opinion pages.
Some were surprised that he will step aside before reaching 65, the age at which the Times requires its newsroom leaders to move on. But he is close to Abramson and saw her as more than ready to take over.
The paper also announced that Washington Bureau Chief Dean Baquet, previously editor of the Los Angeles Times, will become the New York paper’s managing editor for news. Baquet was thought to be a candidate for the top job right now, but his new assignment seems to position him to lead the paper after Abramson’s tenure.
Baquet is very popular with his staff in Washington. He’s known there, as he was here in L.A., as an editor who likes to roll up his sleeves and get into the thick of stories, pushing investigative reporting with special vigor.
It’s not clear what direction Abramson and her new No. 2 will take with the paper. ‘She loves Washington stories, and stories about pop culture sort of entering the nation’s bloodstream,’ said one staffer. She made a point of watching Oprah Winfrey’s final show.
Here’s the sort of detail that might appear in one of those pop stories: As a tribute to her deep ties to her city, Abramson has a tattoo on one shoulder of the old New York City subway token. She was said to have inked herself, while moving out of town for a time, as a tribute to her hometown.
Several years back, Abramson was severely injured when she was run over by a truck in Times Square. She’s made a complete recovery, though pain from her injuries lingered for years.
The resilience learned from that episode may come in handy, given the ferocious challenges facing the newspaper business in 2011.