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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