The Times of her life: Jill Abramson on power, pop culture and puppies

Abramson, the first female editor of The New York Times, has already made history.

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Jill Abramson, the first woman boss of The New York Times, was on her way to a mid-Manhattan gym one morning in May 2007 when a large, refrigerated truck knocked her down. Broken pelvis and leg, internal injuries, blood transfusions, metal plates, three weeks in hospital, months in a wheelchair, then crutches, then a walking stick. Within a year she was climbing a mountain in Yellowstone National Park. She slipped, tumbled down the mountainside, broke a wrist and dislocated a shoulder. She had to be helicoptered to hospital, where surgeons inserted yet another metal plate.

Abramson's close friend Jane Mayer, The New Yorker's Washington correspondent, made the point in an interview that it remained hard to find a woman in power in any organisation who was not described as 'an iron maiden'. Abramson gives literal as well as figurative meaning to the term. She is perceived by her peers as tough, driven, a relisher of challenges, a point prover. After an accident that missed killing her by inches and had her fearing for a while that she might never walk again, she had to demonstrate that her reconstructed bones were still up to scaling mountains; today she is bent on demonstrating that a woman can take on and conquer the top position at the world's most admired newspaper in an internet age when the future of the industry would be uncertain even if the global economic crisis had never struck, when the survival of journalism, as we have known it, is in doubt and when the executive editor's job at The New York Times requires more hours of work, more versatility and more fine judgement than at any point, probably, since the paper was founded 160 years ago.

The challenge is so vast that it seemed to me natural enough to ask her in an interview at her office, early on in her tenure as editor (she was appointed in September 2011), whether falling under a truck and then down a mountain had prompted her at any point to reassess her priorities, to ponder whether she should moderate her earthly ambitions, even abandon the rough and tumble of daily journalism altogether? She thought the question absurd. "Enough of journalism?" she replied, incredulous. "Enough of life?"

There wasn't a squeak of irony in her response. Journalism, she leaves you in no doubt, is much more than a job for her; it is a calling. Like holy orders for a priest. She actually said – almost – as much, remarking in our interview that The New York Times had been for her, from a very early age, "like a religion", serving immediately to reinforce the impression one has as a European journalist that one's American counterparts, but especially the 1,150 who work for The New York Times, are fundamentally different from us. In their fundamental earnestness, in their sense of themselves as a chosen journalistic people. They might be irreverent in manner sometimes, but at heart they do believe they have ascended to the pinnacle of a profession that they regard with the highest ethical seriousness. The outraged spontaneity of Abramson's reply to my question, the religious image she chose to describe her relationship with the paper, reinforced the solemn stereotype, setting out her spiritual fittingness as defender of the faith, as the incumbent in a role regarded by most within the world of American journalism, and among some admirers beyond, as papal in its prestige and its authority.

There is no papal pomp, however, either about how she presents herself or about the office from which she holds sway. Tucked away in a nondescript corner of the cavernously airy, avant garde newsroom to which The New York Times staff decamped in 2007, abandoning the musty building the paper had inhabited for the previous 100 years, Abramson's command post is a monk's cell compared to the grandiose chambers with which lesser Manhattan executives reward their success. Ushered in by a secretary, I was alone for a few minutes, engrossed in a book Abramson had just published, before she wisped in. Small and trim (the shortest person in the room when we went to a front page news meeting later), diligently ironed hair framing an oval face, she sat down on what might have been an Ikea sofa without introducing herself, or asking me my name or offering to shake my hand. All she said was "hello". Not shy, but self-assured, she sat throughout our interview cross-legged like a man, the heel of her right shoe perched on her left knee. Very occasionally she let out a light, dry chuckle but otherwise she was as serene as a monk, or a nun – save for the stylishly understated suit she was wearing and a wide silk scarf in the dark green and purple colours of a stained glass window. I sat down on another unimposing chair and asked her about her book, the first she has written on her own (she wrote an earlier one about the disgraced Washington judge, Clarence Thomas, with her friend Jane Mayer).

As someone whose reporting career had centred on shedding light on the labyrinths of Washington politics, this book seemed to represent a bit of a professional deviation, I suggested. "Indeeeed," was the second sound I heard her utter. The book, called, The Puppy Diaries: Raising a Dog Named Scout, has a photograph of a very young golden retriever on the cover. I found it hard to imagine, I put it to her, that a male editor of The New York Times would have written a book about what the blurb calls the "complexity" of relations between humans and dogs. "Perhaps," she replied. "It grew out of an online blog I wrote on our website in my previous job, as managing editor. I used to bore other editors to tears with tales of our puppy and then a couple of them spoke to me about the need to expand our coverage of the animal world and there it all began. But, yes, that was probably an... unconventional thing to do. Because what I am is an investigative reporter."

And there is nothing more serious than being an investigative reporter at The New York Times, a mission that demands the doggedness of a detective and the legal thoroughness of a high court judge. That was the essence of the job she had in Washington for The Wall Street Journal over nine years and for another six after she joined The New York Times in 1997, in due course becoming the paper's Washington bureau chief before rising in 2003 to the paper's number two position, as managing editor. To write a blog and then a book about her puppy in the midst of all that was, therefore, highly unconventional – and daring too, laying bare as she did in the hitherto stiff, male-dominated world of The New York Times a manifestly tender sensibility. (She does not hold back in the book from using expressions like "adored" and "madly in love" to describe her relationship with her pet.)

Would it be politically incorrect, I asked her, to wonder whether as a woman she brought some new dimension to the editor's job? "No, it's not politically incorrect," she replied, reassuringly. But neither did she think that her woman's vision introduced anything particularly novel into the editorial mix. "I want to take readers behind the curtain when big developments happen and give them a taste of what really went on in the room. But I don't think you would say that the stories on the front page are there because I am a woman."

That said, to be the first woman boss of a paper that has been going for 160 years is something she regards as mightily significant. "I am incredibly proud to be the first woman to be made executive editor of The New York Times, and I embrace that bit of history and find it very meaningful myself and have been really moved by how many other women – and men, too – in the profession have been moved by that."

A measure of the meaning Abramson finds in history, and in her appointment, can be gauged from an old framed photograph she used to exhibit in her managing editor's office of the third woman reporter ever to work for the newspaper, at the start of the last century. Little progress was made in the advancement of women until 1974, when the paper's female journalists (10 per cent of the work force) brought a class action suit against the Times for discrimination. The women won but even then another 13 years had to pass before one of them, Soma Golden, was appointed to a leadership position on the hard news end of the paper (as opposed to the 'Living', 'Style' and 'Home' sections) as national editor.

It was a breakthrough but not a sea change. When Joe Lelyveld took over as editor of the paper in 1994 he was embarrassed by how few women, if any, were present at news meetings. The issue, he said, was constantly on his mind. And it led him to make mistakes. "I did advance women but they were not always necessarily the best people for the job and when they failed or were unpopular it was terrible," Lelyveld recalled. But the filching of Abramson from the The Wall Street Journal, which occurred under Lelyveld's watch, turned out to be a shrewd move. "She was a strong Washington reporter with investigative chops," Lelyveld recalled. "I grabbed at the chance to hire her and not only because she was good, but because in the back of my mind I thought she would end up taking a leadership position."

She did, becoming managing editor under Bill Keller, who took over as executive editor in 2003. Her own success did not blind her to the fact that there were still battles to be fought. Colleagues recall her making wry asides in the newsroom at the continuing absence of women in the paper's upper forums. In a book review published in 2006, she wrote of women journalists, "Our presence lags on the mastheads, opinion pages and front pages of premier publications".

Not any more it doesn't. More than 40 per cent of the top jobs at the paper are now held by women, including the highest job of them all. Regarding the announcement of her appointment as cause for women to celebrate, she phoned the now retired Soma Golden on the night of 1 June and asked her to come and witness the event at The New York Times newsroom the next day. History was on her mind again. She was taking on the job for herself, because she was ambitious; she was taking it on because of her devotion to the cause, but she was doing it also for the women of the world. "Yes," said Golden, who was thrilled to be invited. "There was definitely a sisterhood chip to it."

As there might have been some sisterhood symbolism, too, in Abramson's decision to wear a summery black dress for the occasion, rather than trousers. But sisterhood solidarity wasn't necessarily in glaring evidence at the announcement ceremony itself, where a woman journalist at the paper recalls that the prevailing mood, even among the women themselves, was not so much one of celebration at Abramson's appointment as of regret at the departure of Bill Keller, who was voluntarily switching back to a writing job. Keller, a Pulitzer-prize winning reporter during his time as a correspondent in Moscow, was seen by all as a steady hand at the wheel during what had been a stormy financial period for The New York Times ("a time of fear and panic", as one senior figure at the paper described it to me) provoked, as at all newspapers, by the demise of print newspapers and a fall in advertising revenues that had not been compensated by the rise of the internet, a development which had the perversely catastrophic impact – on account of access to the web being free – of increasing readership while slashing income. Today, amid a desolate American landscape of dead or dying newspapers, The New York Times stands battered but tall. "After years of people writing advance obituaries or even cheering for our demise, I think we've moved from a slew of despond to a point where things are now stable and we are confident of survival," said Keller.

While old rivals like The Washington Post and The Chicago Tribune have practically eliminated foreign bureaus, The New York Times has as many now as it did before Keller took over in 2003. While there is no room for complacency, as Keller said, right now the paper is taking in more money than it is spending. A large part of the explanation why is that a decision in March this year to charge for full access to the paper's website has been, despite plenty of warnings to the contrary, a success. The number of internet subscribers now exceeds 390,000 and if one adds those who subscribe to the printed paper the total number stands at a robust 850,000.

For all of these reasons, and also because Keller was a known quantity widely regarded as intelligent and fair-minded, the appointment of Abramson was not immediately seen as cause for joy among the paper's rank and file. As to Abramson's intrinsic merits for the job, opinion was divided, and remains so. One measure of how people feel is provided by reactions to the publication of the puppy book. For those against, it is ridiculous; for those in favour, it is a sign of extraordinary self-confidence. In necessarily off-the-record conversations, the position against is that she is not a towering intellectual, in contrast to the general perception held of Keller and Lelyveld; that she is not as accomplished an investigative reporter as she might think (no Pulitzer prizes in her cupboard); that she was Washington bureau chief during what is widely regarded as a period when the paper failed abysmally to set the case against President George W Bush going to war in Iraq; that she is a political schemer; that she has no experience of working abroad; that she spends too much time frivolously attentive to developments in popular culture via Entertainment Television; that she is remote, moody and a poor listener.

Those in favour of her appointment (I spoke to a dozen journalists who know her) were of the view that she was extremely smart, that she had performed very capably as managing editor, that to be politically wily and rising to the top of an organisation go hand in hand and that as Washington bureau chief she had inevitably acquired a great deal of foreign policy expertise and that the paper as a whole, not her, had to bear responsibility for any failures on Iraq. As for her apparently newfound interest in popular culture, this was seen by her supporters as evidence of the seriousness with which she takes a job that requires her to be educated on the broad range of matters that hove into view in the promiscuously vast worldwide web.

Where those in favour and those against generally agreed, however, was that she indeed had a reputation for being remote, moody and a poor listener. She is evidently not unaware of these perceptions, having taken measures to counteract them. First, by appointing Dean Baquet as her number two. Baquet, who is black, is gregarious and cheerful and is universally admired at the paper. Second, by partly making good on a promise she made in her acceptance speech the day her announcement was made, to be approachable. She has not been quite as visible in the newsroom as some expected she might be, but she has made a point (perhaps applying lessons from her experience of raising a puppy) of rewarding good behaviour, for instance by sending congratulatory e-mails to those she feels have done particularly fine work.

It would not be Abramson's style, on the other hand, to be touchy-feely with her subordinates. She herself quotes her sister in the puppy book, saying, "You were a wonderful parent but I've never seen you so affectionate or expressive with anyone the way you are with this dog". "It was true," writes Abramson, acknowledging that her unabashedly sentimental relationship with her dog "seemed to certify me as a nicer person".

There is another story, a sort of family secret her sister knows, and her close friends do too, but few outside her inner circle have heard of, that seems to indicate there is rather more niceness about her than meets her detractors' eyes. Jane Mayer told me that Abramson and her husband Henry Griggs, a classmate from Harvard University to whom she has been married for 30 years, have "an adopted son", or something very close to one.

Abramson's biological son Will (she also has a daughter, Cornelia) had a best friend called William Woodson at the state school he attended in the Washington area. William was a black boy whose family was originally from Anacostia, a poor, all-black neighbourhood separated by a bridge from Washington DC (much as Soweto was to Johannesburg during the apartheid years, save for the bridge). When William was at secondary school, his family was obliged to return to Anacostia, meaning he would have to go to a school there, one with inevitably inferior levels of education to the very good one he was at with his friend Will. Jill Abramson came up with a solution. William could move in with her family, thus allowing him to complete his studies at the good school, which he did, for seven years. "William," said Jane Mayer, "was like Jill's third child. She even helped pay for his college fees and later helped him get a good job. I think she loves him as much as she does her own kids. Still today he is a frequent presence at their home in Connecticut. At no point, though, has Jill sought to draw attention to her relationship with him."

Facets of the private Abramson are clearly at odds with the 'iron maiden' image that Mayer said women in power inevitably elicit. All women in authority in big organisations struggle with the question of how to be commanding without being dislikeable, "how to be a boss without coming across as bossy", as Mayer put it. "But while Jill is aware of the problem she is not overly troubled by it."

That is where her apparent self-confidence serves her well, that directness of manner I saw in my interview with her and that Mayer witnessed when they worked on their book together nearly 20 years ago. "She was more direct than me in asking questions, more straight to the point, more the hardcore reporter." And she was also, Mayer saw, "an intellectual force, passionately interested in politics and how power works, in the mechanics of power".

Suddenly, she has found herself in a position to put that knowledge to practical use. She has done so in at least one important respect. "None of her predecessors," one New York Times veteran told me, "imposed so many changes at the top so soon." Immediately upon taking over last September, she set about a clean-out of the upper tiers of management at The New York Times, conveying a clear message that the past was the past and this was her show now. A criticism, however, is that in seeking to display strength, she has revealed weakness. There is a view in the newsroom that she has surrounded herself with people known to be personally loyal to her, provoking a charge frequently made against politicians that she has chosen yes men, and women, as her lieutenants instead of those best fit for the job. If true, it is a classic power play, but one that can sometimes disguise an underlying insecurity. In a rare crack of the hard-cookie veneer she strives to display, she let slip at a meeting with New York media reporters in the summer that she did fret as to how she might do in her new job. "I want to do well," she said, "and sometimes I worry that I won't."

Part of the worry, I put it to her when we met two months into her new job, might be that for her to fail might be interpreted as a blow not just for herself but for womankind. The first word of her reply was the same one she used when I asked her whether it would be a surprise if a male editor of The New York Times were to write a book about a puppy. "Perhaps," was the word, which came across loud and clear as code for "yes". Though she quickly put up her guard again.

"Perhaps it's true that it would be," she said, "but I think you come to work every day determined to succeed and do a good job and I am certainly aware, having worked in journalism for decades now, that crises invariably flare up, but I've weathered big ones already and learnt from them."

Part of the reason why she believes she is the right person for the job is that she spent six months while managing editor working closely with the digital section of the newspaper. This is where her chief concerns lie today. It is on the success or failure of the digital adventure, on whether it functions as a business, that her own success or failure will be measured. The waters The New York Times, as all newspapers, sail in are unpredictable, as Abramson acknowledged when I asked her if she was braced for nasty rocks ahead. "I am braced for rocks and even icebergs, and worse," she said. So where did The New York Times stand now? How would she define the moment at the newspaper?

"It's a transition ... but I believe our course is charted and it is set by our core values." Abramson has a mantra that she repeated three times in our interview. She said that the core values of The New York Times were "rigorous reporting, intelligent editing and elegant writing". Fine, I said to her. But is there not a contradiction here? For starters, doesn't the multimedia mish-mash undercut the elegance of the written word? She claimed not. She said that in a New York Times website that is "a marvel of innovation", audio or video clips embedded in stories could "deepen the impact" and "embellish" a reader's understanding of, and feel for, what was being told.

Except, of course, that once this blend is created, the reader is no longer just a reader, but a TV watcher or radio listener too, with sounds and moving images filling in for what might be the writer's lack of elegance or descriptive depth. Abramson disagreed, insisting that there was a reason The New York Times website, which heads the world newspaper rankings with nearly 48 million visitors a month, was "the envy of everybody in our profession and has become an instrumental part of so many people's lives, and not just in the United States but all around the world": the digital experience had not so much diminished the nature of the product as enhanced it.

What of the other two principles in her mantra? It has always been an article of faith at The New York Times that rigorous reporting requires a rigid separation between news and opinion. Abramson noted in our interview that conflating the two was standard European practice. "The tradition in Europe is somewhat different in that the line between news and opinion is not as crystal clear as it has been here." And yet, in the view of many restive traditionalists at the paper, that line has been crossed in the very news pages she is in charge of. To choose one representative example among many, a 'news' article published in November on the Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich in the 'politics' section of the paper. "Newt Gingrich," the story opened, "is a historian. He earnt a PhD in history. If you've forgotten, he'll remind you." It is an elegant lead, inviting one to read on, in the morally reprehensible European way. But it drips with sarcasm, and sarcasm is opinion. Right from the start, all pretence of balance is gone.

Abramson seeks to explain this apparent contamination of time-honoured New York Times dogma by making a distinction (which some journalists at the paper consider to be bogus) between opinion and "analysis". "Our readers have always had a huge thirst for events to be placed in context and analysed. But it's news and not opinion. Analytic points can seem opinionated but our editors and our writers are very conscious of preserving a line between news and opinion." And yet it is also true, as insiders at the paper note, that the emphasis has shifted over the past 10 years from the traditional 'who, where, when, what' of a story to 'how and why'.

If The New York Times is turning more and more to what Abramson calls analysis it must be in part – and she does not disagree with this – because of the torrent of information, or what passes for it, that floods the internet, in turn making that thirst she describes for context and explanation all the more necessary and urgent.

But there is also the imperative to compete with all the noise that is out there, which leads to a new kind of urgency: getting the information out far more quickly than ever before. And this is where the third "core value" in Abramson's mantra, "intelligent editing", starts to be undermined, too. Increasingly, New York Times reporters have 'live blogs' on to which they spill their material, practically unedited. Live blogs are a far cry from the old methods of publishing stories in the paper, which rested to a degree which European journalists would regard as punishingly legalistic on infuriatingly pedantic desk editors.

The question to Abramson then was, did this shift to live bloggery not inevitably mean a loss of quality control? "Well," she replied, "you can argue that but I think in most cases the standards of The Times are taken so seriously by the journalists that they are not going to go off and repeat something unconfirmed or write in a snarky way about something. They just wouldn't do that."

Which begs the question, perhaps, why all those eagle-eyed editors were so necessary in the first place. But then, if the editors cease to have the role they once had, if they start to lose relevance, where will the difference be seen between a mainstream newspaper and the myriad other rapid-fire, multimedia websites out there? "In quality journalism," said Abramson, right at the end of our interview. "In fantastic reporting and great writing and analysis and fantastic editing."

Quality: that – as all journalists at The New York Times agree, irrespective of their views on Abramson – is the word. Quality has to be the answer to creating journalism that sells. But the definition of quality and the rules by which editorial judgements are made are not as clearly defined as they once were. For more than any New York Times editor in recent memory, the onus is on Abramson to make up the rules as she goes along, to give a subjective verdict on matters of opinion and taste that were governed much more comfortably before by the old and increasingly frayed journalistic notion of 'objectivity'. Everything is in flux; even the word newspaper is losing its validity. All the old lines are blurred and Abramson's choice of the adjective "fantastic" right at the end of our meeting is telling. It is less precise than the other adjectives she had used earlier – rigorous, intelligent, elegant – and more open to imaginative interpretation.

Transition, her key word for describing the moment The New York Times is in, means evolution, it means survival of the fittest, it means adapting. For The New York Times, as for all traditional newspapers, the slogan today has to be adapt or die. The very fact that a woman – a woman who writes about her puppy – has been chosen as editor of the paper is a sign in itself that we are in an age of revolutionary change. The New York Times is not, after all, the papacy. It is not the Roman Catholic Church. It is shifting, out of sheer necessity. It is shifting with the times. Perhaps, perhaps a lot more even than Jill Abramson likes to think, or to admit.

NYT: a paper trail

18 September, 1851

First-ever issue of the New-York Daily Times, founded by Henry Jarvis Raymond and George Jones.

13-16 July, 1863

Rioters protest against the draft in New York; the paper is a target.

6 September, 1896

An illustrated Sunday magazine begins.

14 April, 1912

The paper breaks the story that the Titanic is sinking.

3 June, 1918

For its coverage of the First World War, the paper wins its first Pulitzer Prize.

20 June, 1948

An international edition is launched.

8 December, 1962

Printers and engravers strike – till 1 April, 1963.

26 May, 1978

Hot metal type is ditched, replaced by computers.

19 January, 1996 is launched – the world's most popular online paper, till this January, when it was overtaken by the Daily Mail.

By Holly Williams