“NYT” exec editor Jill Abramson

The new executive editor of The New York Times discusses why it’s a great time to be running the paper and shares what she wants her legacy to be.

Recently, Jill Abramson became the first female executive editor of the venerable New York Times in its 160-year history. Since coming to the paper in '97, she rose quickly through the ranks, serving as Washington editor, bureau chief and managing editor and helping to run its online operations. Abramson was an investigative reporter and deputy bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal and is also a best-selling and award-winning author. While a student at Harvard, the native New Yorker was a stringer for Time and, after graduation, worked at The American Lawyer.


Tavis: Tonight, though, we are pleased to kick off this week with Jill Abramson. Last month she took over as executive editor of “The New York Times,” the first woman to lead the paper in its 160-year history. She’s also the author of the new book, “The Puppy Diaries: Raising a Dog Named Scout.” Very busy woman.

She joins us tonight from where else – New York. Jill Abramson, good to have you on this program and let me add my congratulations to I’m sure the millions you’ve been receiving.

Jill Abramson: Oh, thanks so much, Tavis, so glad to be here.

Tavis: I’m delighted to have you on. Let me just talk about that just for a second, because a lot of us were celebrating the decision when you were named executive editor. I was particularly celebrating because I never thought it possible that a woman could lead “The New York Times” and that the managing editor would be a Black man named Dean Baquet, who spent some time with us here in Los Angeles.

So what are we to make in the most multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic America ever that a woman and an African American run “The New York Times” every day?

Abramson: Well, it’s a good step forward and shows that “The New York Times” takes diversity very seriously. But I think Dean Baquet is the best news man in the country, so of course I’d turn to him to be my pick for managing editor.

Tavis: For those who don’t know your back story and how long you’ve been with the “Times” and the ascent to the top, just give me a quick thumbnail sketch of how Jill Abramson got to be the executive editor of “The New York Times.”

Abramson: Well, how I got to be executive editor, I’m not sure I know the full story because our publisher picked me. (Laughter) But I came to the “Times” in 1997 in Washington, where I spent most of my career, Tavis. Basically I covered investigative stories and all manner of political scandals and became an editor in 2000 at the “Times,” and the first woman to become Washington bureau chief, which is an important post at the “Times.”

I came up to New York in 2003 to be managing editor for news and did that, working very happily for Bill Keller, for about eight years, and then was promoted to be executive editor.

Tavis: There are a lot of people – as a matter of fact, I’m reminded of a joke which really was funny but also, like a lot of good jokes, had some serious points to be made in the telling of it.

I remember a friend of mine years ago telling me a joke about the fact that at the time that American cities really started to tank, all of the African American mayors started to pop up. Things had gotten so bad you can have L.A., Tom Bradley, you can have Detroit, Coleman Young, you can have Atlanta, Maynard Jackson, you can have Chicago, Harold Washington. You can have Newark; you can have Cleveland, Mr. Stokes.

So what does it say, given the turmoil that the newspaper industry is in, that now we have the ascension of women and people of color to the top? Put another way, is this a good time or a bad time to be running “The New York Times?”

Abramson: It’s a good time to be running “The New York Times.” Our future is very bright, both in print and digitally. We have more readers than ever who have subscribed to the newspaper for two years or more, and our audience digitally has remained very strong while we have gone to a paid subscription model.

Tavis: Let me talk about a couple issues right quick that “The New York Times,” of course, is covering front page every single day. Your sense of whether or not “The New York Times” and the media more broadly – I don’t mean to cast aspersion just on the “Times -” but now that we have the president telling us we’re getting out of Iraq at the end of the year, was the media too complicit when we got in this mess in the first place? Did we not ask the questions that should have been asked in the first place? What role does the media play for this long running war in Iraq that may now be coming to an end?

Abramson: It’s a question, Tavis, that I’ve thought a lot about over the years. The war in Iraq started March 19th, 2003, and when I look back on the way the media played its role back then, I think one thing we didn’t do enough of, although there were a few news organizations that did, is listen to the dissenting voices inside the Bush administration, particularly at the CIA, who thought the evidence that Iraq had a weapons of mass destruction program was very flimsy indeed.

Instead, we let the war of other top government officials drown out those voices, and it was not a moment of glory, broadly speaking.

Tavis: There are some who’ve argued in retrospect that the media gave Mr. Obama a pass, that a few years ago everybody in the media seemed to want him to win; hence all these accusations of the so-called “liberal media bias.” Your thoughts about that and how you think the “Times” is going to cover successfully this race for the White House?

Abramson: Well, we have always been equal opportunity tough at “The New York Times,” and during the 2008 campaign we ran some investigative stories that the Obama campaign definitely did not care for, and we’ve had very sober assessments of his performance in the White House and we’ll cover the campaign the way we always cover campaigns.

We get behind the curtain and dig and look at the donors and what the candidates are saying, and truth-test those statements.

Tavis: The black ink, all of the black ink on my hands notwithstanding, I read “The New York Times,” first thing I do every morning, again, the black ink notwithstanding, because I’m an old school guy. I’m a young guy but I’m an old school guy and I love reading the paper. I’ll go online if I need to, but I love putting the paper in my hands just like I love reading books. I love the old school way.

But there are those who are asking whether or not the “Times” as we know it will be the “Times” as we know it some years down the road.

Abramson: I think it’s very hard to be a soothsayer, that’s for sure, but my sense is that “The New York Times” will be publishing in print and digitally at the same time, one news report for all platforms. We publish stories when they’re ready to be published, and I think that’s going to be my reality for my tenure as executive editor.

Tavis: Have you already figured out, or is it too soon to ask, what you want your legacy to be? Every CEO comes in, every leader comes in with things they want to achieve. Do you know what that list is yet, or what’s on the short list, at least?

Abramson: Well, one for sure on the short list is that we are in the middle of a digital transformation where our newsroom has undergone tremendous change. One thing, by the way, that hasn’t changed is the quality and the high standards of our news report.

But finishing that journey is going to be my legacy. We used to talk about the digital future. It’s a digital present, and making sure that everyone in our newsroom is comfortable with that and able to do their best work for that kind of reality is my mission right now.

Tavis: There are a lot of people talking about not just your new job, but about your new book, “The Puppy Diaries: Raising a Dog Named Scout.” It’s a cute book, a wonderful read. I’m curious as to what you make of the fact that whether it’s your book or any number of other books, what is it about books about dogs that seem to make “The New York Times” best seller list consistently?

Abramson: Well, from your lips to God’s ears, Tavis, but (laughter) I think that people feel very passionately about their pets and that that is the simple reason. Why I wrote “The Puppy Diaries” is it began as part of “The New York Times” online, the news report, and I chronicled our very boisterous, wonderful, affectionate, interesting puppy’s first year in an online column, and the response to it was passionate in the extreme.

Every aspect of dog life seemed to invite not only interest but argument, and that fascinated me. The chance to weave it all into one narrative story and develop many of the characters who we came across during her first year was just a total joy.

Tavis: Well, the character we’re talking about, her name is Scout, and there she is on the cover of Jill Abramson’s new book. The book is called “The Puppy Diaries: Raising a Dog Named Scout.” Wonderful story about Scout and how Jill ended up getting the dog and bonding with the dog when she was recuperating. Wonderful story that you’ll want to read about.

For now, though, Jill Abramson, we celebrate your being the leader, the executive editor, of “The New York Times.” I’m delighted to have you on the program for the first time; I pray not the last.

Abramson: Thank you very much; I’d love to come back.

Tavis: Good to have you on.

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Last modified: October 25, 2011 at 12:13 pm