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ink-stained wretches

Jill Abramson Will Never Live Down Her Voice, Dog, or Tattoo

Jill Abramson.

The recent transfer of power at the New York Times is given a thorough parsing in this week's edition of The New Yorker, which features a profile of new executive editor Jill Abramson. Previously the paper's managing editor, Abramson is presented energized and up for the challenge of turning the Times "into something more than a newspaper." She is self-aware about her perceived flaws like favoritism (she promoted someone "with whom she sometimes clashed") and promised to work on "listening more and talking less, and not interrupting." But even in a big fancy magazine article, Abramson can't escape three of her more superficial sticking points: her voice, her puppy, and her ink.

Ken Auletta reports:

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.

He notes that her mother and sister speak the same way, and that it haunted Jill even back in college, when a reviewer at the Harvard Crimson wrote of Abramson's appearance in a play that "her squeaky voice, exaggerated walk, and batting eyes quickly become tiresome." Later Auletta notes that during the hiring process for the executive editor position earlier this year, "there were concerns about her assertiveness and whether it would stifle discussion and dissent, and about her presentation skills, including her voice." And yet she overcame!

Elsewhere Abramson gets a hard time for her new book, The Puppy Diaries: Raising a Dog Named Scout, which received two reviews in the Times. "Being executive editor is a full-time job," snaps one anonymous Times editor to Auletta. "You shouldn’t be writing a book." Abramson says she is self-conscious about the timing of the dog memoir's release, but is defended by the editor of the online column that became the basis for the book: "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."

The other life-loving detail she can't outrun? That tattoo of a New York City subway token, which this very magazine covered last year and also makes an appearance in The New Yorker article. There, it functions as a clunky metaphor: "an implicit reminder of the challenge Abramson faces as she seeks to transform her newspaper." It had to be worked in somehow.

Changing Times [NYer]

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Photo: Eugene Mim/PatrickMcMullan.com