“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.”