Auletta profile: Jill Abramson is ‘similar’ to Howell Raines

New Yorker
Ken Auletta’s thorough profile of New York Times’ current executive editor Jill Abramson includes a deep look back at her relationship with former executive editor Howell Raines.

After Raines’ ouster, Abramson became managing editor under Bill Keller, whose resignation this summer led to her appointment as the newsroom’s leader. Also considered for the top position were Dean Baquet and Marty Baron, editor of the Boston Globe. Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., tells Auletta why he chose Abramson:

He says he knew that each candidate was a proponent of “good journalism,” so a decisive factor would be the person’s “willingness and ability to push us down the digital road.”

… She composed a memorandum outlining her mission, if she should get the job. She recalls writing that she would maintain the paper’s “core mission” of producing excellent journalism. Unlike Howell Raines, who wanted to transform the newsroom, Abramson preached newsroom continuity. She would create a new leadership team with “some new people.” But her real innovations, she vowed, would be digital.

That’s what Sulzberger wanted to hear. He told me that he needed an editor who understood “the move from search to social and what that means for us. Increasingly, people are learning where they want to go, what they want to consume, how they want to engage with news or games or a variety of different things from each other.” As he weighed the three candidates, people in whom he confided say, he saw negatives in each.

He did not pursue Baron, because he had been outside the Times for a lengthy period. Dean Baquet, who may be the most popular editor in the newsroom, did not have digital experience, and there were questions about his patience for managing the newsroom and its budget. As for Abramson, there were concerns about her assertiveness and whether it would stifle discussion and dissent, and about her presentation skills, including her voice.

Abramson “knew that many in the newsroom feared her,” Auletta says. As he walks through her first official day as executive editor, Auletta reports:

“…many in the newsroom considered her to be intimidating and brusque; she was too remote and, they thought, slightly similar to an earlier executive editor, the talented but volcanic Howell Raines, who had also begun the job right after Labor Day, in 2001. After less than two years, Raines was forced out, and his memory is still cursed.”

As for Raines, he takes a few shots at Abramson then tells Auletta that “she has a ‘vendetta’ against him and that it would be useful to inquire into ‘why she has such a bee in her bonnet.’ He also said that he wonders ‘why the new leaders continue a war of personal retribution.’ ”

Auletta is careful to note differences between the Times’ first female executive editor and perhaps her most notorious predecessor, including this: “The difference between Jill and Howell is that Howell executed people he didn’t like.”

Abramson, whose new book “Puppy Diaries” was reviewed by the Times last week, takes management inspiration from dog training, she told Auletta.

She planned to apply in the newsroom some of the “positive training” that she lavished on Scout. She and her husband, she writes in her book, used “encouragement, not punishment” to train Scout, rewarding her for good behavior with a piece of kibble. “In one’s relationship with dogs and with a newsroom, a generous amount of praise and encouragement goes much better than criticism,” she says. …

As Abramson manages a staff working both online and in print, “the challenge is how to manage people without mistakes, without burning them out, without losing standards,” Baquet told Auletta.

Abramson will also face new opportunities:

She must plan for new multimedia possibilities—audio, video, archives, and the participation of readers. Should the Times create online news programs? Should the Times work more closely with Twitter and Facebook? Should the Times publish e-books? “These are the kinds of strategic questions that Jill is going to have to grapple with in a way that none of her predecessors had to,” Gerald Marzorati says. “We’re not just a newspaper anymore.” …

The meshing of online and print introduces another challenge: figuring out how much attitude and opinion to include. The Times today offers opinion on its editorial page, in business-section columns, in political stories only sometimes marked “News Analysis,” and in the Sunday Review, which falls under the editorial-page editor, Andrew Rosenthal. (In its previous iteration, as the Week in Review, it fell under the news department.) More than a few editors worry that there is too much attitude or opinion in the Times.

Abramson agrees with former boss Keller that there is at the Times ‘an insular urban bias that is sometimes apparent in social stories.’ || Related: “It would be nice to think we would get to the point where it wasn’t so remarkable when a woman rose to the top job at an important institution. But we aren’t there yet,” Abramson told CBS News’ Rita Braver.

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  • Anonymous

    Can you flesh that out a bit? How, precisely, is the NYT following, or planning to follow, that path? 

  • Travis Lefebre

    The New York Times knows what’s going on… But, they like Obama and aren’t going to print anything that will make Obama look bad.

  • Travis Lefebre

    The New York Times knows what’s going on… But, they like Obama and aren’t going to print anything that will make Obama look bad.

  • Anonymous

    I’ll have to read the whole Auletta piece, but the irony here is that the very issues being debated in the comments: over-aggregation, weak digital ethics, and the general genuflecting in front of the buzzwords of “social,” “Facebook” and “Twitter” seems to be the path that Jill Abramson was chosen by Sulzberger to follow. I don’t want to have a conversation with the Times – I want world class reporting and writing.

  • Anonymous

    The piece is a 16 graf long summary! And it’s not as if this contains any criticism of the piece which might count as original.

  • Anonymous

    Here is one person who’s not a media critic that agrees strongly with the aforementioned criticism. I am sad that the elegance of Romenesko’s postings has been diluted, and may go by the boards when he leaves. He was one of the first great aggregator-bloggers, and Poynter higher-ups need to understand this, or people really won’t go to the site.

  • Anonymous

    This is nonsense, of course. The essence of the Auletta story could easily have been conveyed in a graf or two of paraphrase. That’s how Romenesko has worked for years, and this kind of stuff is why when he leaves, nearly all of us will be leaving with him. Mediagazer is the perfect example of the perfect aggregator: a headline and a line or two, and that’s it. 

    Bragging about Poynter’s “media stories” is ridiculous and beside the point. You don’t have any “stories.” So you’re bragging that Mediagazer aggregates your overaggregations of other people’s work. 

  • Anonymous

    To wit, and with perfect timing: 

    I left out the importance of contributing to “the link economy.” 

  • Poynter

    Trevor, the length of the excerpt typically depends on the length of the original source & what seems most critical to highlight. That has always been true on this blog, and remains true, regardless of who is doing the excerpting. In this case, I used 8 paragraphs of Ken Auletta’s story, which is at least 113 paragraphs. If you think I’ve included all the salient information, you definitely didn’t read the original, which I highly recommend. The purpose of our aggregation is to discover and share the most interesting news about journalism, each day, not to summarize all of it. There’s nothing stealthy about how or why we aggregate, and plenty of room for others to do so differently. I love Mediagazer and visit it regularly, just as Mediagazer relies on our site. If you check the leaderboard there, you’ll see is its number one source for media stories and has been for many, many weeks. –Julie

  • Anonymous

    You’ll notice that Romenesko himself has rarely done this. Because he’s an old fuddy-duddy who actually respects the work of journalists — an outmoded concept held onto only by dinosaurs. Overaggregating, you see, is part of the whole citizen-journalism, crowdsourcing and other buzzwords thing that captures the fancy of people who don’t have any respect for the grueling (boring!) work of gathering facts. Once those facts are gathered, see, they can “go viral” and be “repurposed” by people who never leave their desks or pick up their phones. People who are shallow enough to “get it.” Welcome to the new world. 

    Another, related phenomenon – you might have noticed that Poynter recently has been playing up the dullest or most inane possible stories they can find. The criteria seem to rest on whether the stories have to do with the above-mentioned buzzwords, or with “social media” or mobile apps. Whether the stories themselves have any actual informational value to journalists is beside the point. 

  • Anonymous

    Dear Poynter,

    I’m bothered by the increasing excerption of articles you’re linking to. I’m sure this is a conscious strategy, but the point of pith is to drive the reader to the original piece. Increasingly, I feel you’ve wrested so much of the salient information from a story that I don’t need to read the original. Not only is this encouraging a bad habit in the one site that shouldn’t be stealth aggregating, it’s cutting back on the amount of information you’re covering. If you’ve given up trying to compete with Mediagazer, this reader will increasingly rely on Mediagazer. (Note to Ken, having skipped over all but the first lines of the link, I shall read your piece entirely).