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New York Times’ Abramson on Role as First Female Top Editor, Challenges Ahead

June 2, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Jill Abramson was named executive editor of the New York Times Thursday, becoming the first woman to hold the top editorial position at the newspaper of record. Abramson speaks with Jim Lehrer about the milestone and the future of the news organization.
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TRANSCRIPT

JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, a conversation with Jill Abramson, named today to be the executive editor of The New York Times, the first woman to hold the top news position at The Times. She will succeed Bill Keller, who will return to writing full-time for the paper.

Abramson was a Times managing editor under Keller for eight years, and before that, a Washington bureau chief, among many other things. She joined The Times from The Wall Street Journal in 1997.

Jill Abramson, congratulations, and welcome.

JILL ABRAMSON, The New York Times: Thank you so much, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: First, just on — on the personal level, what does it mean to you to become the executive editor of The New York Times?

JILL ABRAMSON: It means the world to me.

I grew up here in Manhattan. And The New York Times was worshipped in my family. And what The Times said was true was the truth. And so, I became an avid reader of the paper as a young schoolkid.

And it seems scarcely believable to me that I will hold the top editorial position in the newsroom.

JIM LEHRER: Did you ever find yourself longing to be the boss or dreaming about it, or just — I mean, is this — is this a fulfillment of something that you saw coming sometime; you didn’t know when, but maybe?

JILL ABRAMSON: I — that’s a great description, Jim.

I hoped that it would come, but felt like, definitely, it was a maybe. I knew, because I work so closely with Bill as his managing editor, I got to see his job up close and how much fulfillment he got from it. And we both, working together, got such a kick out of running the news report that, sure, on certain days I would think, boy, it would be nice to have that job.

But being managing editor for news was a very sweet job itself.

JIM LEHRER: How significant do you see it and should others see it that you are the first woman to get this job?

JILL ABRAMSON: I think it’s significant.

All of us gave short talks in our newsroom today, and I made a point of saying that I stood on somewhat different shoulders than past executive editors. I talked about Janet Robinson, our CEO, who has been just an unwavering friend and supporter of mine.

But I also did shout-outs to people like Nan Robertson, who I never even got to meet, who wrote “The Girls in the Balcony” and was part of a generation of women who had such a hard time being hired as reporters. And she went on to win a Pulitzer Prize.

And, you know, I hit on some of the other great women who have worked here, all the way through, you know, my great friend Maureen Dowd, who was really the one who brought me to The Times.

JIM LEHRER: Do you — should readers of The New York Times, after you take over, after you have been there a day or two, from then on…

(LAUGHTER)

JIM LEHRER: … should they expect something different? Is there going to be a new and different New York Times under Jill Abramson?

JILL ABRAMSON: I don’t think there will be that new and different a New York Times.

I have, for eight years, created, I think, a very vibrant news report, with Bill leading it. And, you know, what I hold dear is well-known to all of my colleagues. And, really, The Times is the kind of place, the greatest journalism doesn’t just pop forth from our heads. It’s, you know, a group of people, and the great ideas bubble up from the reporters to their editors and get to us.

So, I think I will make some changes, but, no, readers will not see a new New York Times.

JIM LEHRER: Looking ahead, as you — as you know and everybody knows, the — there has been some technological changes in the Internet and whatever.

Do you — do you believe that The New York Times’ primary, primary function is going to always be the printed newspaper to come out every day?

JILL ABRAMSON: I think our primary function is to create the strongest, deepest, most interesting news report there is in the world.

And whether it’s on the front page of the newspaper or leading the home page doesn’t really matter. We reach a huge audience on the Web. And really, you know, the journalists, whether they are reporters or editors or Web producers or multimedia specialists, we’re all creating, you know, the journalism that is the bedrock of our news report. And that’s true for the newspaper, the Web, our apps, and you name it.

JIM LEHRER: And you can — you believe that’s going to continue to grow, right, that that is the growth?

JILL ABRAMSON: Oh, sure.

JIM LEHRER: That is where the growth is, right?

JILL ABRAMSON: That’s — that’s where the growth is.

And we actually have had some happy news of late on the print side as well. We have seen a bump in our home subscribers and in the number of people who subscribe and get home delivery of the paper for two years or more, at which point we think they’re hooked for good.

(LAUGHTER)

JIM LEHRER: You got them, yes.

JILL ABRAMSON: That — that number has actually gone up as well.

So, you know, print is still responsible for a significant portion of the revenues that, you know, pay for the work of this newsroom. But, you know, digital is very important. And part of the thrill of having this job now is I get to lead us through what is both a thrilling and very challenging transition from a print world to a digital world.

JIM LEHRER: But you’re also in a world where there are fewer resources. All news organizations are hurting financially. The New York Times has taken tremendous hits. You have had to lay off people. The news budget is down.

Is there going to be more of the same?

JILL ABRAMSON: We have not had the kind of deep cuts that some of our competitors have had to endure.

And I have to say that that is because of Arthur Sulzberger Jr.’s commitment to quality journalism. He has not made a radical downsizing of either our budget or the number of people in our newsroom.

We — The Times has as many foreign correspondent as ever we have had. We have more national correspondents. Many newspapers have cut back on having any. We just opened two new bureaus. His commitment to delivering quality journalism is undiminished. And he and his family have really sacrificed for that.

JIM LEHRER: So, you don’t expect…

JILL ABRAMSON: He doesn’t get the — he doesn’t get the credit he deserves for what he has protected.

JIM LEHRER: But you feel that going in — finally, you feel, going into this new job, to be the boss, that you have the resources that you need…

JILL ABRAMSON: I sure do.

JIM LEHRER: … to maintain what you have got now and improve it?

JILL ABRAMSON: I do. I know that may surprise you, Jim, but I do.

And I can tell you it’s the absolute truth that no one on the business side has ever come to Bill Keller or to me to ask what will covering a story cost or questioning the number of people we’re sending someplace. It just has never happened.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

Well, again, Jill Abramson, congratulations. And thank you.

JILL ABRAMSON: Thank you so much, Jim.