Q&A: Jill Abramson
See Jill become The New York Times' first woman executive editor. Read her charming new memoir, "The Puppy Diaries," in stores Oct. 11.
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You're entering a pretty exciting phase of your life. This month, you'll be officially taking the reins as executive editor of the Times. Much has been made of the fact that you're going to be the first woman in this role—in fact, has too much been made of that?
It's an excellent question. When Katie Couric was named CBS anchor, I actually wrote a piece that I believe ran in our "Week in Review" section. It was a piece that said, when will we stop making such a fuss about the first woman? It's a smart piece, and I would think at a certain point we won't do that any more.
But when the moment came for me, I felt it incredibly meaningful to be the "first woman." In the little talk I gave to the newsroom the day my appointment was announced, I noted that it's a Times tradition for the new executive editor to talk about the shoulders that he stood on—the male executive editors who had come before. I certainly admire and have learned from many of them, including my boss, Bill Keller. But I also made a point of saying that some of the shoulders I stood on were those of women I never knew, such as Times reporter Nan Robertson, who wrote The Girls in the Balcony, about the struggle of newswomen to break into the profession. And Jill Robinson, who's our CEO. I talked about Maureen Dowd, who's been a great friend and counselor to me, And about some of the women who, when I came to the Times in 1997, taught me so much. I needed to recognize them, and I didn't feel reluctant to do it in any way.
Some of the people who've interviewed me have done a little apology before they've asked whether this appointment is meaningful. They say, "I know I'm not supposed to ask you this, but . . ." That's sort of in keeping with my "Week in Review" piece. But my attitude has been, "don't hesitate to ask," because it's very meaningful to me to be the first woman. And when my time is over, there should be more than a few great women coming up next. That's very important.
Some of the commentary I've read on this appointment runs along the lines of, "I hope she shakes things up." Do you have a vision of the mark you hope to leave?
Of course. One of the things I also cited in that staff talk was Wallace Stegner's novel Crossing to Safety. I think that's where the Times is right now—we're crossing to safety; we're in the middle of an incredibly exciting but hugely challenging digital transformation. Holding true to the core values of quality journalism, but keeping pace and leading us through that transition is my greatest challenge. Yes, it will involve shaking things up. And when I talk about holding true to the core values of the Times, it isn't only the quality of the journalism I'm talking about, but the diversity and fairness in our newsroom.
Any thoughts you can share about how a publication goes about protecting its quality in a digital transformation? Because when I look at certain digital news sites, the first thing that strikes me is that they're more sensational and "tabloidy" than they need to be.
I'm not sure. I just think the Times is full of confident leaders who know that we have, both in our print editions and online, an educated and very smart readership who wants information that is carefully analyzed and thoughtfully presented—and of course, entertaining some of the time. Our values just remain true and I think you see that every day, in print and in our digital products.
In terms of the process of crossing to safety, what are the biggest challenges the Times faces?
Well, I think our newsroom still hews to newspaper ways, and while we have to keep the print edition as glorious as it's ever been—I think the quality of our photojournalism has increased, if anything, and the depth of our stories, our ability to score scoops and be on top of breaking news is just dazzling—we also have to be a newsroom that rises to the admittedly very large challenge of pushing out our journalism. And by that I mean by creating more than just print stories to read.
One thing I've been proudest of in the last year was a project called "A Year at War," which really lived in its multimedia space in an entirely different and equally exciting way from the print stories we did throughout the year. It was about a military unit in Afghanistan that we followed for a year, going very deep on the personalities involved. The multimedia is just amazing, and I'm thrilled to say it's been nominated for an Emmy.
So, one of the things I have to lead is finding new ways to tell stories and bringing Times-ian creativity to it. That's part of crossing to safety.