244F-POL-001 Abramson says that she wants to improve the paper's digital strategy--and also work on "listening more and talking less."
At nine o’clock on the morning of September 6th, Jill Abramson was riding the subway uptown from her Tribeca loft. It was her first day as executive editor of the New York Times, and also the first time in the paper’s hundred and sixty years that a woman’s name would appear at the top of the masthead. Abramson described herself as “excited,” because of the history she was about to make, and “a little nervous,” because she knew that many in the newsroom feared her.
Abramson, who is fifty-seven, wore a white dress and a black cardigan with white flowers and red trim. Her usually pale complexion glowed from summer sun, but there were deep, dark lines under her eyes. As she entered the Times Building, she waved to the security officers and greeted colleagues in the elevator, something that she had usually been too preoccupied to do. The vast newsroom was quiet—the place does not really come alive until about ten-thirty—but there was a hint of apprehension. The few reporters at their pods silently watched their new boss as she walked by.
Abramson put her purse down on a white Formica desk that she occupies in the middle of the third-floor newsroom. Someone had left her a sealed envelope with “Congratulations” written on the front. It contained a cover note from a female editor at the paper along with a laminated letter passed down from that editor’s father. The letter was from a nine-year-old girl named Alexandra Early, who wrote that she got mad when she watched television: “That’s because I’m a girl and there aren’t enough girl superheroes on TV.” The cover note to Abramson said, “Wherever Alexandra Early ended up, I hope that she heard about your new job.”
Abramson had previously been the paper’s managing editor, and many in the newsroom considered her to be intimidating and brusque; she was too remote and, they thought, slightly similar to an earlier executive editor, the talented but volcanic Howell Raines, who had also begun the job right after Labor Day, in 2001. After less than two years, Raines was forced out, and his memory is still cursed. So Abramson made a point of doing something that Raines was unlikely to have done: walking over and calling out, “Good morning, Metro desk!” Then she offered congratulations for a front-page story on the admissions policies of New York private schools. In an e-mail to the staff that day, she promised “to be out in the newsroom, a lot, talking to all of you and listening to your ideas. . . . You’ll be sick of me there will be so many brainstorming sessions, meal invitations and small meetings.”
Once, it was preposterous to think that a woman could become the editor of the Times. When Eileen Shanahan, who went on to become a well-respected economics reporter, arrived for an interview with Clifton Daniel, the assistant managing editor, in 1962, she hid her desire to become an editor. “All I ever want is to be a reporter on the best newspaper in the world,” she told him.
“That’s good,” Daniel responded, as Shanahan told the story, “because I can assure you no woman will ever be an editor at the New York Times.”
Four decades ago, women and minorities were second-class citizens at the paper. According to Nan Robertson’s book “The Girls in the Balcony: Women, Men, and the New York Times,” only forty of the Times’ four hundred and twenty-five reporters were women, and this included not a single national correspondent. There were no female photographers, columnists, or editorial-board members. Not a single black journalist rose above the position of reporter.
In the late nineteen-seventies, after facing multiple lawsuits alleging discrimination against women and minorities, the company became more aggressive in promoting and recruiting staffers who weren’t white men. By 2010, forty-one per cent of the editors and supervisors were women; just under twenty per cent of all employees were minorities; and thirteen per cent of supervisory positions were held by minorities.
This June, the paper’s publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., announced the appointment of Abramson and of Dean Baquet, who is black, as the new managing editor. Many who gathered in the newsroom that day were thinking of this history. Not a few women cried. Susan Chira, an assistant managing editor, says that she kept thinking that when she joined the Times, in 1981, many Times women were “sad, bitter, angry people who were talented but who had been thwarted.” Editors openly propositioned young women. “I can’t believe how far we’ve come. To see Jill take the mantle, I felt tingling. You have to praise and savor when a woman can earn it through merit. No tokenism here. Jill studied for this job. She earned it.”
The first thing that people usually notice about Jill Abramson is her voice. The equivalent of a nasal car honk, it’s an odd combination of upper- and working-class. Inside the newsroom, her schoolteacherlike way of elongating words and drawing out the last word of each sentence is a subject of endless conversation and expert mimicry. When she appeared on television after her appointment as executive editor, the blogger Ben Trawick-Smith wrote, “Speech pathologists and phoneticians, knock yourself out: what’s going on with Abramson’s speech?” He was deluged with responses. One speculated that, like a politician, she had trained herself to limit the space between sentences so that it would be hard to interrupt her; another said she had probably acquired the accent in an attempt to not sound too New York while she was an undergraduate at Harvard. The writer Amy Wilentz, a college roommate of Abramson’s, has said that the accent probably has something to do with trying to sound a bit like Bob Dylan.
None of those accounts get it right, since Jill’s sister, Jane, has the same unusual voice, as did their mother, Dovie Abramson. The Abramsons lived at the Ardsley, an Art Deco building at Ninety-second Street and Central Park West. Abramson’s father, Norman, a prosperous importer of linen for dresses, was a physically imposing man who did not graduate from college. He had an exuberant personality and pushed his two daughters to excel. Dovie Abramson, a Barnard graduate, read to her daughters—“Little Women,” poetry, Dickens—and liked taking them to horror movies and the theatre.
The family so revered the Times that at one point they had two copies delivered to their home. “The New York Times was our religion,” Abramson has said more than once. Dovie and Norman were Adlai Stevenson idealists. In the 1960 Democratic primary, they adhered to liberal principle rather than support the more moderate and more electable John F. Kennedy. Dovie was a volunteer for William Fitts Ryan, one of the first members of the House of Representatives to denounce the war in Vietnam.
Jill idolized her sister, Jane O’Connor, who is six years older, and the best-selling author of the “Fancy Nancy” children’s books. The two sisters have the same cackle of a laugh, and every year they go off alone on adventurous trips—to China, Morocco, Budapest. “We both think we’re the smartest girls in the room,” Jane says. Jill attended the Ethical Culture School, a private school on Central Park West and a favored destination for secular Jews. When she was allowed to go out without supervision, she went to see old movies at the Thalia and the New Yorker. When Judy Garland died, she and a friend took a bus to the Frank Campbell funeral home to soak up the experience and observe celebrities. She went to high school at Fieldston, a private school in the Bronx.
In 1972, Jill was admitted to Harvard. “Our class was the first class that could choose to live at Radcliffe or in Harvard Yard,” one of her classmates, Alison Mitchell, who is now the Times’ weekend news editor, recalls. “Jill and I chose to live in Harvard Yard. It was an era when you walked into the dining room and would not see another female. All of us who chose to do that felt like we were feminists breaking into the male world. A lot of women at Radcliffe thought we were sellouts and wanted to be in the male world. But we felt like pioneers.”
As a freshman, instead of trying to join the Harvard Crimson, Abramson wrote profiles and theatre reviews for the weekly campus paper, the Independent. “I thought of Jill as an artsy person,” her colleague Stephen Adler, who is the editor-in-chief of Reuters, recalls. As a junior, Abramson became the editor of the arts section, under Alison Mitchell. “I would never have predicted she would become the editor of the New York Times,” Mitchell says. “The people who thought they wanted to go into journalism and make connections went to the Crimson.” One of Abramson’s Harvard friends, Peter Kaplan, who is the editorial director of Fairchild Fashion Media, says, “Jill always had a swagger. It was as if she were in a romantic comedy. She had the same feeling that Rosalind conveys in ‘As You Like It.’ In the last act, everything would work out. She wasn’t like the other girls at Harvard. Most of my crowd were either wonks or tough feminists who would chew your balls off. But Jill was the witty cosmopolitan who gave running commentary that was like a voice-over narration from a Billy Wilder movie.”
In August, 1973, the summer after Abramson’s freshman year, her parents rented a house on Nantucket, where Abramson worked in a cheese shop and as a cocktail waitress. While they were there, Joseph Kennedy crashed his jeep, leaving a young woman paralyzed. It was four years after the Edward Kennedy tragedy at Chappaquiddick, and the accident provoked a media frenzy. But Nantucket was fogged in, and press organizations were desperate for details. A friend of Jill’s sister who worked in Time’s Boston bureau recruited Abramson to find out what happened. For the next three years, she worked as a stringer for the magazine.
But journalism hardly dominated her time. In her sophomore year, Abramson performed as an English flapper in Noël Coward’s “Hay Fever.” The Crimson’s critic, Ruth C. Streeter, was unimpressed. “Jill Abramson vamps madly in her part as the inane and brainless ingénue,” Streeter wrote, “but her squeaky voice, exaggerated walk, and batting eyes quickly become tiresome.” For Abramson, the highlight of the production was meeting a classmate, Henry Little Griggs III, who played the piano between acts. They became a couple. Griggs was a news junkie, shy but funny. He was from an old-line Protestant family in Madison, Connecticut. Friends describe him as easygoing and not as ambitious as Abramson. (Years later, Griggs, who works as a public-relations consultant, enjoys being a part-time country squire: lawn bowling with men several decades older in Madison and collecting and displaying local postcards.)
Abramson graduated from Harvard and, after spending a year in the Boston bureau of Time, moved to Virginia, where she and Griggs worked for the gubernatorial campaign of the Democratic populist Henry Howell. After Howell lost, they moved to Columbia, South Carolina, where Griggs worked as a political consultant. Abramson worked for an advertising agency, writing ads for other Southern Democratic populists inspired by the 1976 Presidential victory of Jimmy Carter, including the Arkansas gubernatorial candidate Bill Clinton.
In the 1980 Presidential contest, Abramson returned to journalism, as a researcher for NBC’s election unit. During the campaign, she met Steven Brill, who had recently started an irreverent magazine on the legal profession, The American Lawyer. In 1981, he hired Abramson as a reporter. Brill was a cantankerous boss, Stephen Adler, who also joined The American Lawyer, recalls. “The first story I edited was one of hers. Steve Brill wrote on the top of it, ‘Really bad first edit.’ He’d often write, ‘Is English your second language?’ ”
Abramson and Griggs married in 1981, and have two children, Cornelia and Will. In 1986, Abramson became the editor of another Brill-owned paper, Legal Times, which was based in Washington, where Griggs was a press representative for the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. Brill was an exacting boss whose normal speaking voice was a shout. But he and Abramson got along. According to Brill’s recollection, the two of them yelled at each other only once. Abramson had fired a female employee, who promptly threatened to file a sex-discrimination suit. “If you don’t fight this case, I’m quitting,” Brill says Abramson hollered at him. “I discriminate against stupid people, and she’s stupid.”
“Calm down,” he said. “I’m not settling.”
In 1986, Abramson published her first book, written with Barbara Franklin, a colleague at The American Lawyer, called “Where They Are Now: The Story of the Women of Harvard Law 1974.” It traced the difficulties that female lawyers confronted as they encountered double standards and professional disappointment. The next year, Norman Pearlstine, the managing editor of the Wall Street Journal , decided that the paper needed to expand its coverage of the law. “As managing editor, I had a rule to hire anyone who could last a year with Steve Brill,” Pearlstine says. Abramson was invited to an interview with the Washington bureau chief, Al Hunt, who agreed to see her only to accommodate Pearlstine. Hunt expected a perfunctory meeting, but it turned out to be “unlike any interview I ever had,” he recalls. “Jill rattled off seven or eight fabulous story ideas that had never occurred to us.” He added, “I’ve interviewed hundreds of reporters or editors for jobs, and this easily was the most impressive and memorable.” Abramson wrote many front-page investigative stories. In 1993, she was promoted to deputy bureau chief.
While at the Journal, she resumed a friendship with a fellow Fieldston student, Jane Mayer, who is now a staff writer at The New Yorker. In 1991, they decided to write a book together about the Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill, who, during his confirmation hearings, told the Senate Judiciary Committee that he had sexually harassed her. Thomas professed innocence, saying that he was the subject of a “high-tech lynching.” Abramson and Mayer set out to determine who was lying.
In their book, “Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas,” they conclude that Thomas had not been truthful. They wrote, “If Thomas did lie, as the preponderance of evidence suggests, then his performance, and that of the Senate in confirming him, raises fundamental questions about the political process that placed him on the court.” Thomas asserted that Hill was “the only person who has been on my staff who has ever made these sorts of allegations about me.” But Mayer and Abramson interviewed three women who detailed similar instances of sexual harassment. The book was also critical of Democrats on the Judiciary Committee, including the chairman, Joe Biden, who is portrayed as being so eager to demonstrate to Republicans that he was “fair” that he was unfair to Hill.
When the hearings ended, Abramson wrote Maureen Dowd, who covered them for the Times, a mash note. Dowd, who later became a columnist, sent back a mash note of her own. Some years later, Dowd told Abramson that she was looking for more women to join the Times. “You know any sensational women out there?” Dowd asked.
“Yeah, me!” Abramson shot back.
Dowd reported this to the Washington bureau chief, Michael Oreskes, who invited Abramson to lunch. She joined the Times in September, 1997, and in December, 2000, she was named Washington bureau chief.
This began a happy period in Abramson’s life. She was the first woman to head the bureau, and she proved both demanding and popular among most reporters. At her first meeting as bureau chief, her deputy, Richard L. Berke, recalls, she acted like a reporter. She shared information and news tips with her staff. “I had worked in Washington for twenty years, and I had never seen anyone who seemed to know everything that was happening behind the scenes in Washington and seemed to have amazing recall of stories from twenty years ago,” Berke said. Dowd was impressed by her omnivorous curiosity: “If there was a lunar eclipse at three in the morning that was best viewed from a bridge in Maryland, she wanted to go.” Jeff Gerth, an investigative reporter, who became a confidant, says, “She was a great team leader, a loyal friend, someone you’d want in the trenches with you. But if you didn’t meet her high professional standards you were not on her team.”
In September of that year, convinced that the Times had become lethargic, Sulzberger chose Howell Raines, a distinctly hot personality who had been running the editorial pages, to succeed Joseph Lelyveld, a preternaturally cool Times lifer, as executive editor. Lelyveld had pressed Sulzberger to choose Bill Keller, then the managing editor, but Keller, unlike Raines, had not cultivated a close relationship with the publisher. Raines became editor a few days before 9/11, and in the first months of his stewardship he seemed an inspired choice. He galvanized the newsroom to perform in spectacular fashion, and that spring the Times won seven Pulitzer Prizes. This was Raines’s moment of triumph and pride; his downfall was not long in coming.
At first, Mayer says, Abramson was excited, because Raines, who had once worked in the Washington bureau and served as the chief political correspondent, and who had won a Pulitzer Prize, was a proponent of deeper political coverage and aggressive investigative reporting. But soon he began to micromanage Abramson’s bureau. He routinely cut her off at the daily page-one meeting to bark into the telephone that her story ideas were lame and that her bureau lagged in post-9/11 coverage. Gerald Boyd, who was the managing editor under Raines and his closest deputy, wrote a memoir some years later in which he said, “I could read Raines well, but I could not understand why he had a problem with her. He complained that she was not dynamic enough and lacked glitz.”
When David Sanger, who is now the paper’s chief Washington correspondent, covered President Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address, with Richard Stevenson, they reported that the President warned Saddam Hussein that failure to disarm would lead to war. Sanger recalls, “Jill received a call from Howell saying that we should say, ‘Bush effectively declared war on Iraq.’ . . . We pushed back very hard. A declaration of war is a distinct thing. We were not hearing that. Jill backed us up, and told New York that a war declaration was not a correct interpretation. Eventually, we won.” Raines now says that he was probably just exploring different news angles. Within days, he summoned Abramson to New York and chewed her out.
A senior editor who worked closely with Abramson and Raines described their relationship this way: “Howell believed she was failing as Washington bureau chief, and she felt he was making it impossible for her to succeed.”
“It was the only time she had a boss who was not thrilled to have her,” Abramson’s sister, Jane O’Connor, says. Raines wanted to replace Abramson with Patrick Tyler, a former colleague of his at the St. Petersburg Times, whom he had recruited from the Washington Post. Tyler was named chief Washington correspondent and given an office next to hers, which made him what the staff called “a shadow bureau chief.” Raines says that first he offered Abramson the job of investigations editor in New York. “I thought that would be a better fit for her talents than Washington,” he says. Abramson does not remember this proposal but recalls being offered the editorship of the weekly Book Review. But she refused to leave her bureau.
By late 2002, Abramson was miserable, and considered taking a senior editing position at the Washington Post. Finally, she recalled, “I came up to talk to Arthur” about the Washington Post job offer—and to tell him that she couldn’t continue to work under Raines. It was, in effect, a polite ultimatum: he would relent or she would leave. Traditionally, it was unusual at the Times for an editor to go straight to the publisher with a complaint, and even more so for the publisher to say that he would intervene. Abramson’s trip to New York prompted a phone call from Janet Robinson, the C.E.O. of the Times Company. “I had heard that Jill was very unhappy and might leave,” Robinson recalls. “I reached out to her and told her, ‘You’re doing a wonderful job.’ She felt as if she were being strong-armed. I said to her, ‘Over my dead body do you leave this paper!’ If I don’t support people in this organization, women in this organization, I’m not doing my job.” Robinson, too, talked to Raines, “as a peacemaker,” as she put it.
Abramson told Robinson how difficult it was to work under Raines. In May, 2003, Sulzberger invited Raines and Abramson to meet with him in his office. He recalls opening this marriage-counselling session by saying, “We’re not leaving this table until I have an understanding of what’s going on between you two.”
That same month, it was revealed that a young reporter named Jayson Blair had been fabricating news articles. That scandal, combined with more complaints from editors and reporters about Raines—many of whom believed he had become disdainful of them—made Sulzberger realize that he needed to make a change. “Jill was one of a number of my journalistic colleagues who played a role in educating me about Howell,” Sulzberger says. “But, at the end of the day, it was Howell who educated me about Howell.” The crisis was consuming the paper and subverting its public credibility. There was no time for repair. On June 5th, Raines and Boyd were forced to resign.
Looking back on Abramson’s performance during the crisis, one would find it hard to argue with the assessment of a senior Times reporter in Washington who said that “she was a black belt” infighter. “Howell clearly viewed Jill as the person who did him in,” an editor with a position on the paper’s masthead says. Raines told me that that “is clearly someone’s interpretation. It’s not based on conversations with me. Indeed, my references to Jill have been few and not condemnatory.” Then, like a prize fighter who cannot resist a brawl, he took a swing, suggesting that she has a “vendetta” against him and that it would be useful to inquire into “why she has such a bee in her bonnet.” He also said that he wonders “why the new leaders continue a war of personal retribution.”
After Raines left, Abramson became a heroine to many in the newsroom. “Jill had been very courageous in speaking out about Howell,” Susan Chira, whom Raines had exiled from the editorship of the Week in Review to a lesser post, says. “A lot of us were cowed by Howell.”
There are, however, critics of Abramson’s tenure as Washington bureau chief. They note that during this period the Times was duped into believing that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. “She came in during a period where there were many political and domestic stories that were all subjects she was comfortable with,” a fellow-editor who wishes to remain anonymous observed. “Then, after 9/11, the story changed—and she was not as comfortable with foreign policy and intelligence.”
The most prominent problem stemmed from the work of the correspondent Judith Miller, who arrived in Washington soon after 9/11 and began reporting on Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction. Abramson recalls that right after 9/11 Raines said to her, “ ‘Judy is going down to Washington to do some reporting and she has sources in the White House who will not talk to anyone else.’ He also said, ‘She will win a Pulitzer.’ ” (Raines says, “With the start of the Iraq war, I became concerned that the bureau seemed reluctant to take ownership of the nuclear-arms story.” He adds, “I don’t recall any Pulitzer reference, though it’s true we won a lot in those days.”)
Miller ended up writing a series of stories about Saddam Hussein’s weapons stockpile that turned out to be exaggerated and erroneous. Raines asserts that Abramson edited several of the erroneous stories on W.M.D.s. Abramson counters that Judith Miller “did not work for me.” Douglas Frantz, who was the investigations editor, and oversaw Miller, agrees that Abramson did not edit Miller’s stories, and says that “Miller operated outside the normal reporting and editing channels.”
Abramson, however, accepts some blame. In 2008, she wrote in the Times, “I failed to push hard enough” to publish an article, written by James Risen, the Times national-security reporter, that was skeptical of claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. She also says, “My responsibility as bureau chief is that I did not pay sufficient attention to the stories Judy was writing. Many were based on Iraqi defectors. I wish I had been more skeptical.” Miller, who now works as a commentator for Fox and as a drama critic for the online magazine Tablet, declined to comment, saying, “I will be addressing these issues and more in my forthcoming book.”
Many in the newsroom place the blame for the stories on Raines. “Howell and Gerald were so excited to have these ‘scoops’ that they bypassed the normal editing strictures,” Susan Chira says. They took away the checks and balances that she believes would have spared the Times some embarrassing stories about Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons. Under Keller and Abramson, Chira says, “we got back to a desk system where editors did their jobs.”
Raines says that Chira, who was then working in the Times’ book-development office, was in no position to know what happened. “Her statements are made up and false,” Raines told me. He added that he was stunned by “Chira’s assertion that desk editors did not do their jobs. My impression was that Jill was the only department head who wouldn’t take ownership of sensitive stories and difficult personnel matters.”
Another critique of Abramson’s performance as bureau chief surfaced as well. Even her most devoted supporters say that she could be short with people, curtly cutting them off in mid-sentence. Those who failed to meet her exacting standards were often berated, sometimes publicly; her critics thought that she played favorites and was mercurial. Some members of her staff also found her egotistical, inclined to quote her own work and to say things like “You have to read my book.” From such complaints and anxieties, ironic whispers began: the woman who had helped slay the king could be “Howell-like.”
After two years of what Bill Keller refers to as “my happy exile” as an editorial-page columnist and Times Magazine writer, he won the job denied him in 2001. Keller knew that he had management issues to address. Internal committees found that better oversight might have prevented Jayson Blair’s deception. So Keller, for the first time, chose two managing editors: Abramson for all news gathering, and John M. Geddes for news operations, including the production of the newspaper and oversight of the budget. Keller knew Geddes well, but his relationship with Abramson was new. “In the beginning, we didn’t know each other,” she says.
Keller had spent much of his career as a foreign correspondent, Abramson had spent hers as an investigative reporter. “My scoops are more in the realm of explaining,” Keller once said. Sam Tanenhaus, the editor of the Book Review, says, “The foreign correspondent at the upper levels is essentially bearing witness. He is bringing back the story. The investigative reporter is trying to get to the bottom of a story.”
Keller was reserved, and in meetings people mistook his silence for passivity; Abramson didn’t hesitate to announce her opinions. He avoided confrontation; she did not. When the Times prepared a front-page investigative report on the investor Steven Rattner, a former Times reporter and a close friend of Sulzberger’s, Abramson listened to Rattner’s complaints but then gave the go-ahead to publish the story on page one. The article opened a temporary rift between Sulzberger and Rattner. “What better test is there for an editor than how they handle the publisher’s best friend?” a former Times correspondent asks. And, one could add, what better test is there for a publisher than his refusal to bully his newsroom to help a friend?
Keller and Abramson came to treat their different interests and temperaments as complementary. “It was great to have her as a partner,” Keller says. “Jill took newsroom meetings to an extraordinary level with her thoroughness. She would come in most mornings having read everything.” She pressed editors and reporters to offer more context and to delve into people’s motives. At the daily 10 A.M. page-one meeting, Keller mostly listened as his managing editor burrowed in with questions. “Jill is a little more competitive,” Geddes observes. She will say, “ ‘XYZ had this story this morning. What are we doing?’ ”
Her loyalty to Keller went unquestioned. “I was at a gathering where people bad-mouthed him, and she wouldn’t brook it,” Janet Elder, the editor in charge of polling and election analysis, says. Keller might be sphinxlike in newsroom meetings, but he was quick to unleash invective in e-mail responses to critics. He would let Abramson read his drafts before he pressed send. Keller says, “I always felt she had my back, someone who would not just defend you but tell you when you were about to do something stupid… And not tell anyone else.”
Carolyn Ryan, who was promoted to Metro editor this past January, first worked closely with Abramson on the story that forced the resignation of Eliot Spitzer, the governor of New York. Keller was in Europe, and Times reporters were trying to confirm a story that Spitzer was having sex with prostitutes and possibly hiding the financial transactions through nefarious means. “A lot of editors would have done the kind of Al Haig ‘We’re gonna bring down the Governor!’ routine,” Ryan says. What struck her “was the way Jill stayed with us and asked the right questions, but she did not in any way overwhelm us.” Around midnight on a Friday, Abramson took the Metro reporters and editors out to a late-night restaurant near the Port Authority. Abramson related how she had struggled to get to the bottom of the relationship between President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. The Times broke the Spitzer story the following Monday.
Despite Abramson’s abrupt manner, Times reporters and editors also praise her sense of empathy. The editor Dana Canedy was engaged to Army First Sergeant Charles Monroe King. Their son, Jordan, was born in 2006—when King was in Iraq—and he started writing a journal addressed to Jordan, offering life advice in case he didn’t come back. In October, just a month before King was to return home, he was killed by an improvised explosive device. At the end of the year, the Times planned a series of short profiles of soldiers killed in Iraq, and Canedy volunteered to write about King. Editors were nervous about running a first-person account in a newspaper that prides itself on a dispassionate tone, but Canedy persisted, and says that Abramson was her champion.
The story, “From Father to Son, Last Words to Live By,” appeared on page one of the Times on January 1, 2007. Canedy wrote about King’s lessons: how to behave on a date and how to treat people who are different. She movingly described how “as a black man he sometimes felt the sting of discrimination,” yet “betrayed no bitterness.” Readers flooded the paper with letters and e-mails. Organizations invited her to speak. Publishers vied to give her a book contract. Denzel Washington optioned the movie rights.
At one point, Canedy told Abramson that she was worried that Jordan did not have proper male role models. Abramson thought of William Woodson, her son’s best friend and an African-American, who had been raised by a single mother and had become almost a member of her family. He had gone on vacations with them, and she and her husband had helped pay his college tuition. Now he was a junior executive at Restaurant Associates. He started going to Canedy’s house every Wednesday evening, reading to Jordan, taking him to the playground, and staying for dinner.
In May, 2007, in the same week that her son, Will, graduated from N.Y.U., Abramson was in midtown, on her way to the Harvard Club for an early-morning workout. As the light changed at the intersection of Forty-fourth Street and Seventh Avenue, a large truck, racing to beat the red, knocked her down. Its front tire crushed her right foot. Its rear tire rolled over her left side and snapped her femur, broke her pelvis, and left her with extensive internal injuries. An ambulance rushed her to Bellevue Hospital’s trauma center, where a doctor said that if the rear wheel had struck her thigh just two inches higher she’d have been killed. Surgeons administered blood transfusions, inserted a titanium rod in her leg, and told her that she needed to spend six weeks in bed. Many months of painkillers, excruciating rehab, and physical therapy followed, as she progressed from wheelchair to crutches to cane. Her oldest friend, Jim Lax, who is now a physician, said that she experienced a kind of “post-traumatic stress,” including bouts of anxiety and depression.
The columnist and former food critic Frank Bruni remembers going out to dinner with her after the accident, with Bill Keller and his wife, Emma. “We were celebrating that she was out of a wheelchair,” Bruni says, and at the end of dinner Abramson said that she wanted to walk home. “I remember it took us twenty-five minutes,” Bruni says. “It was eleven at night. It was the end of a very long day. But she had an opportunity to get in a little therapy and exercise, and I remember thinking, She is one fierce, resilient woman.”
Abramson returned to work, in a wheelchair, nine weeks after the accident. By then, the Times had moved from its old building, on West Forty-third Street, to the sleek Renzo Piano building, on Eighth Avenue between West Fortieth and West Forty-first Streets. The architect had made each editor’s office the same size, with the same furniture and gray industrial carpet. All her old furniture was gone. “It was totally not me,” she says. “I went to Arthur and I said, ‘It would make a difference for me if I could have my old stuff back.’ He laughed, but he was not going to deny me in my state.”
Her old furniture came back: a cloth-covered green couch with a dog pillow, a Persian rug that would cover part of the carpet, a shelf of books, a Yankees baseball cap, and pictures of Babe Ruth, Keith Richards, and E. B. White and his Westie.
During Abramson’s tenure as managing editor, many women at the Times came to see her as their advocate. When women received promotions, Abramson often hosted a celebratory party for them. These events got to be so frequent, the European correspondent Suzanne Daley joked, “it almost became ‘Oh, God, another party!’ I credit her with being the first woman to hit that level and actually bring other people along.” But the support that Abramson provides for women makes some men at the Times nervous. One male correspondent says, “She plays favorites, it is said. Especially for women.”
Some also complained that, as managing editor, Abramson was too close to Sulzberger and Janet Robinson. In interviews, she would go out of her way to praise them. William E. Schmidt, the deputy managing editor, puts it a different way. He says of Abramson, “She’s shrewd in that she understands the importance of dealing with people upstairs. Many previous editors treated upstairs as the place that delivered the money the newsroom needed.” But in the current tough economic times, he says, Abramson understands that “you need these people.”
As for the complaint that Abramson is too rough with underlings, some believe that female executives like her are victimized by stereotypes. Sally Singer, who worked closely with Anna Wintour, at Vogue, before joining the Times as the editor of its magazine T, last year, told me, “When women are blunt, maybe it’s seen as ‘tough,’ but actually it’s just efficient. I worked for Anna for eleven years, and you can hem and haw and pretend to like something, but why? You’re just going to end up having six more meetings about it—and you’re going to demoralize someone over days as opposed to in a moment.”
Thirteen years ago, Abramson and Griggs bought an eighteenth-century house near Long Island Sound in Madison, Connecticut, where Scout, their golden retriever, frolics in the water and they can take long walks. In 2009, Abramson began writing a popular online column for the Times about her dog, and she is now publishing a book, “The Puppy Diaries: Raising a Dog Named Scout.” Like all books that people write about their dogs, it’s partly about the pet and partly about the owner. In it, she describes the death of the family’s first dog, Buddy, and says that her sister calls Scout “needier” than Buddy. “But we were needy, too,” she writes. “After the departure of our children, Buddy’s death, and my accident, our home lives had become a little narrow and thin. . . . Bringing into our empty nest another living being to make happy and take care of helped put our relationship back on its natural axis.”
“She knew before she did the puppy diaries that she would get a lot of grief,” Trish Hall, the deputy editorial-page editor who edited the column, says. “She didn’t care. I like it that she’s got this rich life. It used to be that women wouldn’t talk about when their kid had a dentist appointment. Jill doesn’t pretend that work is the only thing in her life.”
“Being executive editor is a full-time job,” one masthead editor demurs. “You shouldn’t be writing a book.” Especially one called “The Puppy Diaries.” Abramson admits that she is self-conscious about her dog book being published during her second month as executive editor of the august New York Times. Say what you will about the grayer days of the Times in mid-century, but it was always hard to imagine James Reston writing a book about a beloved household pet.
In the spring of 2010, in an effort to brighten the paper’s future (and, presumably, her own), Abramson took a leave from the managing-editor position to supervise news content on the Times’ Web site. She spent much of her time in a section of the third floor near the Web team. Her “detour” coincided with a company-wide reevaluation of how the Times should charge for its online edition.
Abramson was surprised at how poorly integrated the two parts of the newsroom were. The daily meetings devoted to selecting six front-page stories consumed huge amounts of energy; little time was spent thinking about what appeared on the Web home page.
Some people in the newsroom believe that Abramson’s digital knowledge remains skimpy. But, broadly speaking, she knows that the Web is vital to the Times’ future, and she wants Web people working alongside print people in each section of the newsroom. The page-one meetings now feature the home page of NYTimes.com on a large overhead screen, and editors decide what stories to post immediately.
While colleagues respect Abramson’s news judgment, they are wary of her sometimes brusque manner. In the summer of 2010, nearly two dozen editors met to plan coverage for the midterm elections. Although Abramson was still working on the online paper, she decided to attend. The gathering was chaired by the national editor, Richard Berke, and the political editor, Richard Stevenson. They began to talk about stories they wanted covered. Abramson interrupted, without allowing them to finish the presentation, and began belittling many of their ideas.
“This was a small earthquake of a meeting,” one reporter, who was informed about it shortly afterward, says. “She whacked editors,” a senior editor who heard about the meeting says. Glenn Kramon, an assistant managing editor, says of Abramson, “The challenge is to say what she wants, not what she doesn’t like.” A senior editor says, “She and Howell are remarkably similar. They are big personalities. They suck the air out of the room. They tell stories about themselves. . . . Unlike Howell, she is not mean. Jill is a nice, caring person. . . . She doesn’t enjoy torturing people. So much of her negativity is unintended.”
Even her supporters were mildly critical of her behavior at the political meeting. Dean Baquet, the acting managing editor at the time, says, “I wouldn’t have handled it that way.” Her criticism “was too sharp.” Abramson now admits, “I think I was probably too tough,” and “hijacked the meeting in a way that was not helpful.”
That summer, Bill Keller told his wife, Emma, that he longed to return to writing. She said that the timing was wrong, as did Abramson, when he confided in her. “I was thunderstruck,” Abramson says.
Keller’s tenure had been defined by three crises—morale, economic, and digital. “He came in at a challenging time journalistically, with all we had gone through with Howell, with Jayson Blair,” Sulzberger says, “and Bill really came in and stabilized the newsroom.” He was a calming presence. The media columnist David Carr speaks for many in the newsroom when he says, “There are a lot of people who say that that job slowly drives you crazy, because you end up moving through an environment that’s without rigorous feedback. So you end up convinced of your own rectitude. . . . I never felt like I couldn’t talk to him.”
Keller’s demeanor helped to cushion the economic tsunami that struck the Times and newspapers in general. Between 2006 and 2010, the company cut costs by eight hundred and fifty million dollars. The newsroom budget of two hundred million dollars was reduced by ten per cent, Geddes says. The Times shrank from six daily sections to four. The company was compelled to sell, and lease back, the floors it occupied in its new building. Its stock price plunged. Sulzberger consented to take a loan from one of the world’s richest men, Carlos Slim, paying a usurious rate of fourteen per cent.
By the time Keller told his wife and Abramson that he was ready to leave, he had survived the morale and economic crises, but the company was absorbed in a conversation over how to charge for the online edition. After speaking with them, he decided that he had to complete that last debate.
In March, the Times launched a Web subscription plan, requiring readers who don’t already subscribe to pay thirty-five dollars a month for digital access on all devices. Early indications were encouraging. In the first three months, the Times attracted two hundred and eighty-one thousand digital subscribers.
In May, Keller went to see Arthur Sulzberger. As the publisher recalls the conversation, Keller said, “Arthur, I’ve been the executive editor of the New York Times longer than Joe Lelyveld, longer than Max Frankel. I think the time has come for me to hand the reins over to someone else.”
Sulzberger was surprised, but after a moment he said, “If this is what you want, you’ve earned it.” They talked about possible successors, and, Keller says, “I told him I thought it was prudent to consider a range of candidates, but that he had an obvious candidate in front of him and Jill was it.”
For a publisher, few decisions rival that of choosing the editor. Sulzberger asked various editors and executives to recommend candidates, and to describe the strengths and weaknesses of each. He quickly concluded that he would not look outside the Times Company, and settled on three editors whom he knew reasonably well: Abramson; the Washington bureau chief, Dean Baquet; and the editor of the Boston Globe, Martin Baron. (The Globe is owned by the Times Company.) He says he knew that each candidate was a proponent of “good journalism,” so a decisive factor would be the person’s “willingness and ability to push us down the digital road.”
He had a meal with each of the three. Abramson was the front-runner. Sulzberger respected her professional judgment, and they also had a personal bond. Sulzberger had turned to her in search of guidance and career advice for his son, Arthur Gregg Sulzberger, and another relative, Sam Dolnick, both talented young reporters.
Abramson was candid with Sulzberger about her weaknesses. She recalls, “I said I needed to work on listening more and talking less, and not interrupting. I worried that questions I asked about the substance of journalism can come off as being critical.” They talked about what she would do as editor, and she said that she would “be out and about in the newsroom,” talking to reporters and editors. She composed a memorandum outlining her mission, if she should get the job. She recalls writing that she would maintain the paper’s “core mission” of producing excellent journalism. Unlike Howell Raines, who wanted to transform the newsroom, Abramson preached newsroom continuity. She would create a new leadership team with “some new people.” But her real innovations, she vowed, would be digital.
That’s what Sulzberger wanted to hear. He told me that he needed an editor who understood “the move from search to social and what that means for us. Increasingly, people are learning where they want to go, what they want to consume, how they want to engage with news or games or a variety of different things from each other.” As he weighed the three candidates, people in whom he confided say, he saw negatives in each. He did not pursue Baron, because he had been outside the Times for a lengthy period. Dean Baquet, who may be the most popular editor in the newsroom, did not have digital experience, and there were questions about his patience for managing the newsroom and its budget. As for Abramson, there were concerns about her assertiveness and whether it would stifle discussion and dissent, and about her presentation skills, including her voice.
Janet Robinson praised the talents of the three contenders, but clearly leaned toward Abramson. “At the end of the day,” Robinson says of Sulzberger, “he focussed on Jill, because of that experience on the digital side and the work she had done in the organization.” Sulzberger also knew that, if he chose Baquet, Abramson might leave.
At eight-fifteen one morning, just two weeks after her meeting with Sulzberger, the phone rang in Abramson’s loft. Sulzberger was calling from Europe. “I have a surprise,” he said.
She was, she says, “extremely nervous,” and asked, “Is it a good surprise or a bad surprise?”
When he offered her the job, she responded, “It would be the honor of my life.” Before racing uptown, she called her sister. Days later, she asked Baquet to become the managing editor. She had helped recruit him to rejoin the Times, in 2007. They talked often, and swapped recommendations on novels. He had more national-security experience, and had the personal skills of an accomplished politician, with none of the phoniness. “If you take this,” he says she told him, “this is an appointment that will make the newsroom smile.”
Sulzberger was certainly pleased. Baquet was Abramson’s choice, one executive at the Times says, but Sulzberger’s desire to see an African-American lead the paper with the first woman editor “was unspoken. Arthur wants that to be part of his legacy, and Jill is smart enough to know that.”
The announcement was made in the third-floor newsroom on June 2nd. Bill Keller, standing with his wife and members of Abramson’s family, was beaming. With his square jaw, neatly parted gray hair, dark suit, and pocket kerchief, Keller on this day could have passed for what his father was, the chairman and C.E.O. of Chevron. Yet when he stepped to the microphone his voice quavered, and he occasionally paused to restrain tears. “If it’s true that eighty per cent of life is just showing up, I think the other twenty per cent is knowing when to move on,” he began. He thanked Sulzberger and Abramson, before holding his wife in a tight hug as the newsroom awarded him a sustained round of applause.
Abramson moved to the middle of the newsroom, where, reading from notes, she spoke into a microphone that reached her forehead. She singled out some of “my sisters on the business side and in editorial,” as well as the Times’ female pioneers. She listed some of the women who have inspired her and declared, “Strong shoulders are holding me up right now.”
Over the summer, Abramson visited many department and masthead editors and asked, “What does this place need less of, and more of, from the executive editor?” She received two overwhelming responses: “The first is that they want editors who will be less remote. A number of people I talked to felt that in the last couple of years Bill and John Geddes and I were not walking the floor and talking to people about their work. . . . The second was more about me. It is learning things I’m already aware of, which is that I can seem forbidding.”
But doesn’t fear attach itself to any demanding editor who sets exacting standards? It does, she says. “But there is some reason that when I am being probing it is seen as criticism. My kids when they were little would sometimes say to me—and with my kids I don’t think I ever raised my voice—‘Stop yelling!’ ” She planned to apply in the newsroom some of the “positive training” that she lavished on Scout. She and her husband, she writes in her book, used “encouragement, not punishment” to train Scout, rewarding her for good behavior with a piece of kibble. “In one’s relationship with dogs and with a newsroom, a generous amount of praise and encouragement goes much better than criticism,” she says. One wonders whether there might, however, be some editors who are tougher to please than Scout.
In late June, Abramson and Baquet flew to Pakistan and Afghanistan, where they spent time with their correspondents and met with government officials. Neither had been a foreign reporter, and the trip was intended as a signal of support to the bureaus. Throughout the trip, they talked about how they might allow another generation of editors to rise, and how they might inject new energy into the paper by shifting longtime department heads. They would make those decisions in consultation with two editors she had asked to continue in their jobs, John Geddes and William Schmidt.
The first big change came in late July, when Abramson named David Leonhardt, a thirty-eight-year-old economics writer and a Pulitzer Prize winner, to replace Baquet as Washington bureau chief. Calling it the most “out-of-the-box decision I’ve seen,” the business columnist and Dealbook editor Andrew Ross Sorkin, who is thirty-four, says, “She took a young guy without so much management experience and made him Washington bureau chief. It was not the same old, same old New York Times.”
Abramson said that she hoped to make many of the major personnel decisions by her first day as editor, and insecurity and speculation were common among Times editors this summer. “Has Jill really been itching to do something that hasn’t been done?” Suzanne Daley, the European correspondent, said. “I don’t know. All of us are waiting to see what it is.” Aside from Abramson’s core team of four, the six other masthead editors ranged in age from fifty-six to fifty-eight, and knew that they were in the way if Abramson wanted to bring along the next generation. The new executive editor, it was said, did not have a close relationship with the assistant managing editor, Jim Roberts. She and the culture editor, Jonathan Landman, “rub each other the wrong way,” a friend of both said. People noted that there was occasionally tension between her and Susan Chira, at the time the foreign editor. Then, there were fiefdoms to contend with. “There are thirty different news departments,” Schmidt, the deputy managing editor, observes. “Each one, like the Balkans, not only speaks its own language but thinks it prints its own currency.”
Abramson says that her editorship will be marked by more investigative reporting, attention to politics, cultural coverage, and searching for the story behind the public-relations announcement. One can sense the kind of contextual reporting that Abramson is looking for from a review she did, published in the Times Book Review in 2008, of Bob Woodward’s “The War Within” and his three previous books on George W. Bush, and from a review she did in 2010 of campaign books, including “Game Change,” by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin. While praising Woodward’s latest volume, she takes him to task for failing to provide deeper context and analysis in his earlier books:
Woodward is famous for his flat, just-the-facts-ma’am style, if one can call it that. It is the old-fashioned newspaperman’s credo of show, don’t tell. He rarely pauses in his narratives to synthesize or analyze, let alone to judge his powerful subjects, especially those who have been his sources. He has only one angle, the close-up.
In the essay on campaign books, she compares Heilemann and Halperin’s best-selling “Game Change” to Theodore H. White’s classic, “The Making of the President 1960”:
Their book is so relentlessly entertaining, in part, precisely because the authors operate so differently from White, rarely pausing between scooplets to examine political history, to provide broader contextual information about the country or even to weigh the nuances of the characters—the candidates and their aides—who dominate their story. Indeed, as the title suggests, they approach a landmark election as a grueling sports competition, with the various players jousting and falling to the ground, and the narrative seems constructed to fit the 24/7 news flow that dominates so much political reporting today: the tidbits of news, gossip, recent polls and state-by-state odds doled out continuously on the Internet… not to mention the attitude-driven “reports” on cable TV.
Abramson found that filling out her executive team took longer than she anticipated and was less dramatic than she promised. “It’s like a cascade of related downstream effects, and all of them have to be considered,” she told me at the end of a long September day. She had to confer with candidates for every editorial opening, and she had to meet with every editor who was replaced or promoted. So when she replaced two editors on the masthead, Gerald Marzorati and Susan Edgerley, with Richard Berke and Susan Chira, she had to meet with each privately. (The newsroom noticed that, with Chira, Abramson had promoted someone with whom she sometimes clashed.) Every decision triggered still more decisions. After promoting Chira, for example, Abramson had to meet with the assistant managing editor, Jim Roberts, to tell him that she was subtracting part of his portfolio and adding something else, supervision of the online Times. She tried to navigate between goals that sometimes collided—seeking more diversity and trying to promote a new generation of editors, yet not depriving the paper of those with experience and wisdom. While her decisions pleased editors in their early fifties, like Chira and Berke, they did not please editors who were closer to sixty and wondered if their age was held against them. Despite the desire to reduce the number of masthead editors, she had not done so.
“It’s hard,” Abramson says, of the personnel decisions. “I approach it with a sense of extreme worry verging on dread. Not because I think the decisions are wrong or I’m second-guessing myself but because the conversations are so difficult.” One senior editor at the paper who was unaffected by the changes observes, “The difference between Jill and Howell is that Howell executed people he didn’t like.”
In her first weeks on the job, Abramson frequently wandered around the three newsroom floors doling out compliments. She stopped at the Metro desk on September 12th and said, “I just wanted to say fantastic job,” referring to Robert McFadden’s front-page account of the events that took place on the tenth anniversary of 9/11. “Would you call me when he comes in?” She went downstairs and sat down next to a young business reporter, Louise Story, telling her, “Your front-page story today was great.” At the 10 A.M. page-one meeting, she went out of her way to praise editors for their work. “She is really trying,” one editor says. “How long it will last I don’t know.”
he foremost question for the Times is financial. Can the New York Times Company, which derives more than ninety per cent of its revenues from the Times and the seventeen other daily newspapers it owns, defy the bleak recent history of newspapers? The Times Company lost money in two of the past five years, but saw its operating profit jump to two hundred and thirty-four million dollars last year; its net debt has been cut nearly in half since 2006, and it has repaid the loans from Carlos Slim. James M. Follo, a senior vice-president and the C.F.O., notes that the company’s digital-news revenue rose fifteen per cent in the second quarter. “It’s still way too early to declare victory,” Arthur Sulzberger says about digital subscriptions. “But it’s significantly gone past our expectations. Yes, it’s working.” Follo predicts further “subscription growth in this quarter.”
Nevertheless, according to the company’s latest financial report, which covers the second quarter of 2011, the company lost a hundred and twenty million dollars, revenues fell two per cent, and print advertising dropped more than twice as rapidly as digital advertising rose. With Times Company stock hovering at about seven dollars per share, the market value of the entire company is barely a billion dollars, about what the Times spent to acquire the Boston Globe, in 1993. In mid-September, Janet Robinson warned investors that the Times’ third-quarter ad revenues would drop eight per cent, twice the projected falloff. Last week, Abramson announced that she would be eliminating about twenty jobs in the newsroom through buyouts. “We’re still sailing across the Atlantic,” Lawrence Ingrassia, the business editor, says, “and we don’t know what’s on the other side.”
One thing that Abramson does know—as she described, generally, in her memo to Sulzberger—is that she’s going to have to turn the Times into something more than a newspaper. She must plan for new multimedia possibilities—audio, video, archives, and the participation of readers. Should the Times create online news programs? Should the Times work more closely with Twitter and Facebook? Should the Times publish e-books? “These are the kinds of strategic questions that Jill is going to have to grapple with in a way that none of her predecessors had to,” Gerald Marzorati says. “We’re not just a newspaper anymore.”
Because Times reporters appear in both the print and the online editions, they no longer just file their stories in the early evening for the next day’s paper. They are expected to file for the Web site several times each day—and to maintain the paper’s quality even when they’re rushed. “So the challenge is how to manage people without mistakes, without burning them out, without losing standards,” Baquet says.
The meshing of online and print introduces another challenge: figuring out how much attitude and opinion to include. The Times today offers opinion on its editorial page, in business-section columns, in political stories only sometimes marked “News Analysis,” and in the Sunday Review, which falls under the editorial-page editor, Andrew Rosenthal. (In its previous iteration, as the Week in Review, it fell under the news department.) More than a few editors worry that there is too much attitude or opinion in the Times.
Rosenthal, whose father, A. M. Rosenthal, once rigorously policed newsroom opinions as executive editor, is a leading worrier. “Readers are confused by what we’re doing,” he says. “The news report can be undermined, particularly in the highly partisan, accusatory time we live in, if we mingle news and opinion.”
“There is huge apprehension all through the newsroom about the blurring of lines,” Schmidt says. “On the other hand, there’s a sense of wanting to be edgier.” In an attempt to clearly demarcate the two, the Times has had informal committees address the subject, but consensus has proved elusive. “Part of the great competition for audience in the twenty-first century is the competition to get beyond commodity news,” Bill Keller says. “To add meaning to it. To help readers organize the information into understanding.” That’s especially true, he says, in the print newspaper, because many of the facts have already been available online. “The tenor of a front-page news story has changed in the last five or ten years from who, where, when, what, why to more emphasis on how and why.”
Norman Pearlstine, Abramson’s former boss at the Wall Street Journal and today the chief content officer of Bloomberg L.P., believes that too much opinion seeps into the Times’ news pages: “Sometimes it’s hard to tell what I’m reading. There are a lot of stories where it seems there is an editorial voice.” For example, the first page of the Metro section on September 25th featured an article by Ginia Bellafante titled “Gunning for Wall Street, with Faulty Aim.” It was an early account of Occupy Wall Street. Bellafante wrote:
The group’s lack of cohesion and its apparent wish to pantomime progressivism rather than practice it knowledgeably is unsettling in the face of the challenges so many of its generation face—finding work, repaying student loans, figuring out ways to finish college when money has run out. But what were the chances that its members were going to receive the attention they so richly deserve carrying signs like “Even If the World Were to End Tomorrow I’d Still Plant a Tree Today”?
If it had been on the editorial page or the cultural page or labeled “News Analysis,” it would not have stood out. Instead, in the print edition there was a box with the writer’s name and the rubric “Big City.” Online, the column bore no special markings and had the same layout as the other stories in the Metro section.
An editorial voice in news stories adds credence to the frequent charge that the Times’ news reporting often displays a liberal bias—a critique that will not be lessened by the elevation of a woman brought up in a liberal-Democratic household on the West Side of Manhattan who worked for liberal Southern Democrats and wrote a book asserting that Clarence Thomas probably lied.
Abramson, asked whether the Times has a liberal bias, says, “I think we try hard not to” be biased, but she adds that the Times, as its public editor argued in a column seven years ago, has an insular urban bias that is sometimes apparent in social stories. She fervently believes that the Times is an equal-opportunity prober of Democrats as well as of Republicans. Asked about her own upbringing, she responds, “I’m often the one who raises the point in page-one meetings that our mix of stories is too urban in outlook, too parochial. All my years in Washington, and in some ways being attacked by conservatives, made me more conscious of how a story might be seen in the rest of America.”
In the meantime, she flaunts just how much of a New Yorker she is. To celebrate her return to the city, in 2003, Abramson got a small tattoo on her right shoulder that replicates an old subway token. It was intended, she says, as a tribute to the subway system, which she rides and which she associates with her home town, and as a declaration that she had “come back to New York, likely for good.” The slogan on the coin, she said, was also meant as a reflection of her philosophy that life is not a dress rehearsal for anything: “Good for one fare.” It’s also, though, an implicit reminder of the challenge Abramson faces as she seeks to transform her newspaper. The days of a young girl’s family receiving two printed copies of the New York Times and calling it “our religion” are long gone—as are the days when you dropped a coin into a slot before pushing through a subway turnstile.