When Jill Abramson moved back to New York from Washington, D.C., in the summer of 2003 at the age of 49 to become managing editor of the New York Times, she commemorated the homecoming like a battle-hardened soldier returning from the front: She got a tattoo. “It’s a New York City subway token,” Abramson tells me, showing off the bronze circle on her right shoulder. “I grew up here, and I agonized over [a way to show] I’m a New York girl back in New York.”
In many ways, Abramson was returning from combat. As the Times’ Washington bureau chief in those politically charged months between 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq, Abramson had been a journalist under siege, battling with executive editor Howell Raines and controversial reporter Judith Miller while taking incoming fire from Bush-administration officials. Raines often second-guessed her editing decisions and wanted her out of Washington, first putting an ally in the bureau to keep an eye on her, then attempting to install her as editor of the Book Review.
But Abramson is not one to back down. Her delicate features belie the fact that she is an aggressive inside player, able to work the angles in the Times’ famously sharp-elbowed newsroom. She complained to publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. about Raines’s attempts to marginalize her. And after Raines and his deputy, Gerald Boyd, were ousted following Jayson Blair’s deceptions, many in the newsroom saw Abramson as one of the leaders of the revolution. When it came time to appoint new leadership, Abramson was an obvious choice for Bill Keller as his No. 2 in charge of news.
Keller and Abramson didn’t have a close relationship at the time, but they’ve become a tight team and a stabilizing force after the tumultuous Raines era. “She’s an investigative reporter by temperament,” Keller says. “The investigative reporter in you makes you alert to hidden agendas. I tend to see the good in people. Jill is more wary and suspicious—she’s the perfect person to have my back.”
Abramson is the first woman to hold a managing-editor post at the Times, long a heavily male-dominated institution. It is a role she knows carries historic importance, and even if she has mixed feelings about it, she has made the paper’s gender balance a part of her mission. “Like yesterday, I try not to be obnoxious about it, but I came in and [national editor] Rick Berke was having a meeting. There were ten people in the room, and it was all guys. As I went by, as a joke I said, ‘You guys need some girls in that meeting,’ ” she tells me. “You know, there are women in important jobs here—Susan Chira is the foreign editor, Michele McNally is on the masthead, Susan Edgerley is on the masthead—but in some areas, [journalism] is still pretty male-dominated.”
On an afternoon earlier this month, Abramson is sitting at a small round conference table in her office on the third floor of the Times headquarters on Eighth Avenue. Arcade Fire’s anthem “Wake Up” plays quietly on her computer at a nearby desk. Above an olive-green couch hangs a large framed photograph of Mary Taft, the third woman to serve as a Times reporter, in the newsroom surrounded by men circa 1904. “I think she made $19 a week, something like that,” Abramson says. Her voice—a nasally drawl that’s a bit Brahmin, a bit Bronx—makes every sentence just hang there.
Abramson, who is going to the Narciso Rodriguez fashion show at Lincoln Center in a few hours, is pushing fashion stories to the front page and takes a conspicuous interest in pop culture (she reads celebrity magazines in her downtime). Possibly this reflects her confidence in her serious journalism bona fides.
Abramson is currently on break from her managing-editor post for six months to complete a special project studying the Times’ digital strategy, as the paper plans to charge for its website sometime early next year. In her place, the Times is rotating three editors—foreign editor Chira, business editor Larry Ingrassia, and D.C. bureau chief Dean Baquet—into the managing-editor slot for two-month stints. In the Kremlinology of the Times newsroom, many interpreted this move as the first step in succession-planning at the top of the masthead—and many Times watchers consider Abramson a front-runner to take over the paper when Keller, who turns 62 next year, decides to move on. Abramson is said to be Sulzberger’s favored choice, but she faces headwinds in her bid to be the paper’s first female executive editor. Among rank-and-file reporters and editors, she is both respected and feared. She can be an imperious boss, critical when she thinks the Times is falling behind competitors. In many respects, she’s more alpha than Keller, with a confidence that makes some Times people still smarting from the Raines era a little nervous. And she’s not the only one in the hunt for the job. Both Baquet, a beloved former national editor who also once ran the Los Angeles Times, and editorial-page editor Andy Rosenthal are said to be contenders. Baquet’s recent stint as acting managing editor was greeted warmly in the newsroom.
“I don’t dwell on it,” Abramson says when I ask about succession, evincing the diplomatic skill of the politicians she used to cover earlier in her career as an ace investigative reporter. “I think it would be a healthy, nice thing for the country. It is meaningful to have women in positions of leadership at important institutions in society. But, you know, there are wonderful male editors in this place who are just as capable as I am, and they could run this place exquisitely well. If it happens, it happens, if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.”
Abramson in many ways is the ideal candidate. She grew up on the Upper West Side in a family of rabid Times readers. “When I was pretty little, my mom was a consummate Times puzzler and she was very neurotic and she would not tear the puzzle out,” Abramson recalled, “so everyone in my family had to wait till she finished the puzzle to read the magazine.”
Abramson attended Fieldston and went on to Harvard, where she was a stringer for Time magazine. After college, she did stints at NBC News, the American Lawyer, and Legal Times, where owner Steve Brill named her editor at 31, before landing at The Wall Street Journal’s D.C. bureau. There, she worked alongside her childhood friend Jane Mayer, and the two co-wrote an award-winning book about the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings. She covered money and politics for the Journal and rose to deputy Washington bureau chief, but after ten years, Abramson harbored ambitions to land at the Times. In 1997, she ran into Maureen Dowd at a book party for the late Atlantic editor Michael Kelly. Dowd asked Abramson if she knew any talented female reporters the Times should hire. Abramson put her name in the hat.
Abramson and Dowd became close friends. “She’s pretty much stuck by me through thick and thin and good and bad,” Abramson says. In 2007, Abramson was hit by a refrigerated truck while crossing West 44th Street. She’d fractured her leg and lost a lot of blood. “I had a cop telling me on the street that two inches different and I would have been killed.”
She was hospitalized for three weeks, and each weekend Dowd came to visit. This summer Abramson slipped and fell hiking in Yellowstone National Park and broke her left wrist. Dowd was the first to visit. “She said, ‘From now on, just go on vacation with me, because all we would do is lie on a couch, watch movies, and drink martinis.’ ”
In the hospital after her truck accident, Abramson took on the politically delicate assignment of overseeing the Times’ investigation of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire just as he was maneuvering to buy The Wall Street Journal. “Long before she got run over by the truck, people knew she had a lot of strength,” Keller says.
In the six years she’s been in the managing job, the Times has faced an epochal media transformation while bracing against the worst advertising recession ever to hit the newspaper industry. Layoffs and buyouts, once unthinkable at the mighty Times, have become a part of life at the paper of record. And whoever takes over will have to continue to marry Times journalism with the new rules of the web. “Digital revenues right now would not be enough to support the newsgathering operations we have,” Abramson says. “The foreign correspondents, the business desk, the metro desk, sports: It just wouldn’t. If you were digital only, you’d be talking about a smaller news operation.”
Recently, Abramson has been touring the offices of the Times’ new-media rivals like the Huffington Post and Politico, after which she’s going to write a long memo for Keller. But from what’s she’s already seen, Abramson is convinced that the Times must continue to invest heavily in the expensive job of reporting. “They do, with a few exceptions, surprisingly little original reporting of consequence,” she says. “I don’t want to belittle what Politico and others do. They do break real news, and they’re quite enterprising. But they’re not doing the Pentagon Papers.”
Abramson may lack a Pulitzer or the stamped passport of a foreign correspondent—historically career milestones for a Times executive editor—but web skills may prove more valuable. Abramson wants to reorient the Times culture, so newsroom incentives encourage reporters and editors to fully embrace the web. “When you have a front-page story,” she says, “everyone is like, ‘Wow, great story!’ I’d like to get to a place where the celebration when something goes on the home page is as pronounced.”
Keller says the succession question won’t be decided anytime soon. “If I got hit by a falling safe,” he says, “I have no doubt Jill could step in tomorrow and run this place excellently. But I’m not planning to be hit by a safe.”