For instance, he says, the Times recently launched a mobile subscription that lasts for four weeks, aimed at those who don’t want the entire print paper or full online access. And soon there will be more: the recently announced “Need to Know” project, a small “curated subset” of the paper that will sell for a reduced price; and a stand-alone online magazine that the Times will sell individually for tablets and the like. “We’re going to thicken the pot with things like video, with new form factors, new devices,” he sums up, “but the point of the exercise is not about the means but the sense of the relationship—if you like, the indispensability of the Times, hopefully, for a lot of people.”
Thompson is short on specifics. But he takes great pains to emphasize that Abramson is the source of creative efforts to reinvent the Times as a digital enterprise. “Although the business side can identify gaps in the market,” he says, “the newsroom should be the natural leader of the creative thinking about where new expressions of our journalism should reside.”
But Abramson is doing more to adapt to Thompson’s designs than vice versa, and with diminishing resources. Last spring, she made a wave of new editorial appointments, including the elevation of Danielle Mattoon to culture editor (she was recently fêted at an event co-hosted by Thompson). She also assigned new and younger candidates to major jobs, like “Book Review” editor Pamela Paul. Abramson was putting more women in power, as her own appointment had portended, but ironically the Times could not pay them the same salaries as the men who’d previously had the jobs—not because Abramson respected them less, but because the money is needed for other ventures.
Tales of austerity are rampant at the Times nowadays. The deputy editor of the op-ed page, Sewell Chan, recently posted on Facebook that he needed a place to stay while on business in Europe. A Portuguese online edition of the Times, which Sulzberger publicized with great fanfare on a trip to Brazil last fall, was considered too expensive and never launched.
Meanwhile, the recent sale of the Boston Globe and Worcester Telegram & Gazette for $70 million, an almost 95 percent loss in value from the approximately $1.4 billion the Times paid for the properties, means the paper must eventually report a significant loss in upcoming quarters.
Abramson is executive editor at an excruciating time for the paper, but she has maintained the Times’ high journalistic standards. Last year, the paper earned more Pulitzer Prizes than it had since 2009; its leadership in coverage of major events like the turmoil in Egypt is unmatched. The investigative journalism during her tenure has been aggressive, taking on the Chinese leadership’s money entanglements, or Apple’s and other companies’ foreign labor practices. But her job is also to manage an anxious newsroom, and that is more difficult. In February, when the staff held farewell parties for two popular veteran (and, by Times standards, expensive) editors, Jon Landman and Jim Roberts, who had been encouraged to take buyouts, Abramson left on a trip to Cuba with her sister. “I remember at one point Jill announcing she was leaving on this vacation because she was exhausted by all the tension of the buyout,” says a colleague. “Oh, I’m sorry, it was even harder for the people who were leaving.”
By late April, these critiques erupted in a story by Dylan Byers of Politico, which described a meeting between Abramson and managing editor Dean Baquet in which Abramson’s manner so infuriated the ordinarily affable No. 2 that he stormed out of her office, slammed a wall, and left Times headquarters. The story featured several anonymous quotations attacking Abramson in personal terms.
Critics shredded the story as a sexist attack by faceless cowards who might have otherwise celebrated her toughness had she been a man. Still, the account was an expression of dissatisfaction with Abramson among important editorial constituencies like the Washington bureau, and the details of the incident highlight aspects of Abramson’s sometimes abrasive style, which she herself has dubbed “Bad Jill.” According to two sources, what precipitated the wall-punching incident was this: She had just returned from another trip and was critiquing the front-page stories that Baquet had published in her absence, calling each of them, one by one, “boring.” Baquet, who had managed the emotional farewells of departing editors while Abramson vacationed, protested by offering a story that he felt was important. After a long pause, Abramson simply declared, “Booooo-riiiing.”
In a previous time, acting like an autocrat was standard practice for executive editors. Her predecessors with brusque styles included Abe Rosenthal, a powerful editor who radically reinvented the paper in the seventies, and Howell Raines, the ousted (and also transformative) editor with whom Abramson once openly warred—and to whom she is sometimes compared.