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Entertainment & Arts

On the Media: The task ahead for the New York Times’ Jill Abramson

The ascension of Jill Abramson to the editor’s chair of the New York Times will make the history books. She will be the first woman to lead the newspaper in its 160-year history.

The 57-year-old journalist’s in-box burst with good wishes Thursday, particularly from women, thrilled that one of journalism’s highest glass ceilings had been shattered.

All Abramson has to do when she takes over from Bill Keller in September is manage one of the world’s most prestigious newsrooms under a tight budget, urge a tradition-bound print institution toward a digital future and make a compelling case for the enduring value of the authoritative, literate voice in an era when anyone with a high-speed connection has become a publisher.

“In my house growing up, the Times substituted for religion,” Abramson said in her first comment to her own paper as editor-designate.

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The quote suggested to her co-workers how deeply the former investigative reporter and one-time Washington bureau chief cares about the institution. It also showed how much she still needs to grow into her role as a leading voice in journalism.

The newspaper-as-religion trope immediately set right-wing ideologues seething, all the confirmation they needed that the “Valhalla” (Abramson’s word) of godless lefties was in the hands of … a godless lefty. Suspicion grew when the Times cut the “religion” quote from the final version of its story on the management change.

I’m going to boldly assert that Abramson doesn’t hate God or organized religion. She merely wants the world to know how excited she is to be leading a newspaper that she grew up worshipping. Still, her rocky opening line was a reminder that everything that comes out of her mouth will be parsed beyond parsing, like President Obama’s every whisper on the Mideast.

The extra scrutiny and transparency will be a cross to bear for a woman who’s more accustomed to the rough and tumble of the newsroom. But it’s a necessary burden, given the new realities of news gathering at the Times and in the wider world.

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When Keller took over nearly eight years ago — after the scandalous revelations about how reporter Jayson Blair concocted a series of stories in the Times — critics were rooting heartily for the newspaper to lose readers and its preeminent place among the nation’s media.

But Keller set about restoring the paper’s reputation: principally by encouraging good, tough reporting and artful writing, but also by shedding some of the paper’s ivory-tower air. The editor began to speak out more about the work the Times had done, including the how and why. The Times brought on its first public editor, to investigate what went right and wrong with its journalism. That signaled an end to the era when the paper treated its journalism like the immaculate conception — to be believed based on faith, not just rational evidence.

The Times’ grudging glasnost came at the right time, because the rise of the Internet meant many more voices had joined the conversation. New-media sausage makers insisted on knowing how the paper produced its schnitzel. “You can’t just be the voice of God,” Keller told Advertising Age this week. “You have to engage readers and explain why you do things the way you do them.”

That didn’t mean Keller, 62, a traditional storyteller who won a Pulitzer Prize writing about the Soviet Union, embraced everything “new” in journalism. With the recent launch of his column in the paper’s Sunday magazine, he worried that Twitter and other social media killed “real rapport and real conversation” and suggested that Huffington Post was to news content what a counterfeiter is to real cash.

In her first broadcast interview Thursday, Abramson sent a different signal. She told CNN that Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington was “an inventive person,” adding, “I certainly don’t want to be in a war with her.” (Keller acknowledged to New York magazine that the paper’s media writers objected that his outspokenness about new media had “complicated” their jobs.) Abramson, in contrast, has pledged to have some level of engagement via Twitter. Though she’s known as a nails-tough newswoman, she once published a blog for the Times about the first year in the life of her dog.

Despite financial declines, the controlling Sulzberger family has fended off major cutbacks at the Times and prevented incursions by business executives into the news content of the paper, a trend that’s been “wildly ascendant” at other papers, said John Carroll, the former editor of the Los Angeles Times.

Gawker speculated that Keller stepped aside because he did not want to make coming staff cuts, a claim the editor called “ridiculous.”

Abramson sounded unworried. She said publisher Arthur Sulzberger “fought like a tiger to keep our news-gathering muscles as strong as they’ve ever been.”

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That’s not to say there won’t be other challenges. The paper recently erected a “pay wall” — forcing customers who read more than 20 articles a month to pay for nytimes.com content — and it remains far from certain that will produce a revenue to make up for shortfalls in advertising.

Abramson spent six months last year working in the Times’ Web operation. She said she came away persuaded that the print and online editions of the paper needed to be more seamlessly melded, with, for example, more fresh postings each morning instead of just print retreads.

Abramson met privately last week with Dean Baquet and asked the New York Times Washington bureau chief to become the paper’s managing editor for news, effectively the No. 2 editor. Baquet had been editor of the L.A. Times until late 2006, when he left in a dispute over staff cuts. He had also been a candidate to replace Keller.

Baquet, 54, said Abramson will be an important figure because of her breakthrough position as the first woman in the job and because of the challenges facing the media.

“There are a lot of big questions circling journalism,” Baquet said, “and there is an expectation that the editor of the New York Times will speak for the good of the business … for why journalism still matters.”

james.rainey@latimes.com

Twitter: latimesrainey


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