Alpha female of The New York Times

Posted on December 11, 2011

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Jill Abramson is too busy to worry about her own appetite. She’s more concerned about other people’s appetites – specifically, her readers’ hunger for news. getimage.aspx?regionguid=5e3a4beb-f141-41e0-93b0-0f7fe313d872&scale=127&file=10522011121000000000001001&regionKey=b%2fjzcnOk5iKR4KerT24ctw%3d%3dANTHONY JENKINS/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

It’s a concern that takes up all of her time now, just a couple of months into her new job as executive editor of The New York Times. It leaves her with no time to take off to a restaurant midday, or even spend much time considering the caterer’s menu. If she must stop for lunch, it’s in an icy-white boardroom in the Times building, not far from the newsroom, perched behind a lacquered white table with a view of Manhattan and the Hudson river twinkling in the sun. And she orders the salmon as if on autopilot.

Besides the monumental task of overseeing the Times’ daily news operations, there are two major distractions consuming Ms. Abramson’s spare time. The first is nurturing the paper’s digital strategy, including the paywall on its website and mobile applications, in a bid to ask readers to pay for the news, not just the paper. It’s a project that will define The New York Times for years to come – an attempt to create a sustainable business model to keep its journalism alive.

The second is the cavalcade of reporters coming to set down for posterity her thoughts on journalism, on her life, even her tattoo (a New York subway token). As the first woman to be named executive editor of the Times, Ms. Abramson is not only making the news; she is the news.

“My background is as an investigative reporter, and in Washington, [D.C.], I always kind of liked that no one knew what I looked like,” she says. “… It’s a little much.”

But that is not to say Ms. Abramson does not grasp the impact of her promotion. Being the first woman at the helm of the Times is “very meaningful to me,” she says. In her office down in the newsroom, a blown-up black-and-white photo hangs above her desk. It’s a picture of the newsroom in 1895, a sea of men and one woman: Mary Taft, one of the first female reporters hired by the paper. Like most women at the time and many for decades after, Ms. Taft was relegated to writing for the “women’s pages.” She also covered the suffragette movement – until it became front page news, and male reporters took over.

By contrast, when Ms. Abramson landed her first job out of college, at Time Magazine’s Boston bureau, her boss was a woman: Sandra Burton, the first woman to become a bureau chief at the magazine. (Years later, when Ms. Abramson became the first female Washington bureau chief for the Times, she received a telegram from Ms. Burton at the overseas post she then held, saying that she could hear the glass shattering all the way from Hong Kong.)

In her own career, Ms. Abramson was more preoccupied with the struggle to nail down investigative pieces than with being taken seriously as a female reporter. “Most of my worries were not about fighting to get ahead.”

In her new job, Ms. Abramson is in charge of driving another wave of change – the one now taking place at the venerable newspaper.

“We’re in transition, and we’re the pioneers,” she says, remembering the days when the newspaper’s website was managed by a team in an entirely separate building. No more. The Times has been attempting to strike the very fine balance between finding new ways to make the money it needs to support its journalism, and not dropping off the social radar. Many newspapers that have tried to erect paywalls were hit not only with declining online advertising revenue but also with fewer readers and the threat of losing their place in the cultural conversation.

The Times has responded by erecting a paywall that is positively full of holes. It allows readers access to 20 articles a month for free, as well as Times blogs and anything they find through a link on social media such as Facebook or Twitter. When it launched the new paywall, the Times was criticized for a paper tiger approach. But Ms. Abramson contends it has safeguarded the newspaper’s place in people’s daily media habits – and has also managed to get the most-engaged readers to support the product financially. More than 300,000 of them have obliged – through new digital subscriptions or combined printand-online subscriptions – which has helped to improve the performance of that weekend brunch tradition, the fat printed Sunday Times.

At the same time, the paper is fighting to produce high-quality free content, to keep Web traffic and advertising up. Its Indiafocused blog, India Ink, is free, as are a number of new mobile applications, or apps, which are new so it’s difficult to charge for them. Once readers see their value, Ms. Abramson suggests they may also be brought behind the paywall.

“There is still a yearning for information that is diligently gathered, intelligently analyzed, and for stories that are elegantly edited and told. I see that appetite growing.”

She says all this as she methodically strikes at her own appetite with an endive and radicchio salad, and some steamed salmon served with barley, a catered lunch she has eaten with visitors before.

This image of Ms. Abramson as a hard-charging, brusque and demanding leader is only part of the picture. “All of these profiles make me sound like such a serious person, and I think of myself as a humorous person,” she says during our hour-long conversation, during which she rarely cracks a smile.

Still, there is evidence of a lighter side. She is one-half of a lasting marriage and a demonstratively proud mother of two. And, after years as a hard-boiled political reporter and editor-onthe-ascent, with two serious books under her belt, she published a book entirely devoted to her golden retriever.

The Puppy Diaries came out of an online column she wrote about the first year of her dog’s life, and was a weekend project, “pure fun and pure joy.” The awkward timing of its release, just as she was appointed to arguably the most serious post in American journalism, has been remarked upon and occasionally mocked. (“Are you writing about her dog?” famed publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. asks impishly when we meet in the hallway and he is told whom I’m interviewing.)

If Ms. Abramson worries about her humorous side getting lost, her self-portrait of a smitten dog owner, stuffed with literary allusion, should put that concern to rest: The original column revealed that Scout is named for the character in To Kill a Mockingbird; she feels the need to distinguish that Henry is “my husband, not O.”; and one instalment was entitled “Chewing Toward Bethlehem.” At home, with the dog, Ms. Abramson wrote that Henry is the “pack leader” in the vocabulary of Cesar Millan, the self-proclaimed Dog Whisperer and pet training guru.

But here at the Times, she is very much the Alpha – and while she has benefited from the struggles of the women who came before her, she knows it’s still rare enough to have a woman be the leader. In the corridors of power her paper peers into, women are taking more executive roles but it’s still “not that many,” she notes. At the Times’ Page 1 meetings, there are still more male faces around the table.

But when she graduated from Harvard and started her career, New York Times Co. was embroiled in a class-action lawsuit by employees alleging widespread gender discrimination. Now its CEO is a woman, and Ms. Abramson runs the newsroom where Mary Taft was an outlier. And conversations about her gender are nothing more than a temporary distraction from the job she’s here to do – not just producing tomorrow’s paper, but helping to mould a future for the news that’s fit to print.

“I gotta go in, like, two seconds,” she says, scooping a few berries into her mouth for dessert. Even a lunch on home turf is taking longer than she’d like. “I’m going to visit my Metro desk.”

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