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Illustration of Jill Abramson, executive editor of The New York Times. (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail/Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
Illustration of Jill Abramson, executive editor of The New York Times. (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail/Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

The Lunch

Jill Abramson: NYT's Alpha female Add to ...

Jill Abramson is too busy to worry about her own appetite. She’s more concerned about other people’s appetites – specifically, her readers’ hunger for news.

It’s a concern that takes up all of her time now, just a couple of months into her new job as executive editor of The New York Times. It leaves her with no time to take off to a restaurant midday, or even spend much time considering the caterer’s menu. If she must stop for lunch, it’s in an icy-white boardroom in the Times building, not far from the newsroom, perched behind a lacquered white table with a view of Manhattan and the Hudson river twinkling in the sun. And she orders the salmon as if on autopilot.

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Besides the monumental task of overseeing the Times’ daily news operations, there are two major distractions consuming Ms. Abramson’s spare time. The first is nurturing the paper’s digital strategy, including the paywall on its website and mobile applications, in a bid to ask readers to pay for the news, not just the paper. It’s a project that will define The New York Times for years to come – an attempt to create a sustainable business model to keep its journalism alive.

The second is the cavalcade of reporters coming to set down for posterity her thoughts on journalism, on her life, even her tattoo (a New York subway token). As the first woman to be named executive editor of the Times, Ms. Abramson is not only making the news; she is the news.

“My background is as an investigative reporter, and in Washington, [D.C.] I always kind of liked that no one knew what I looked like,” she says. “… It’s a little much.”

But that is not to say Ms. Abramson does not grasp the impact of her promotion. Being the first woman at the helm of the Times is “very meaningful to me,” she says. In her office down in the newsroom, a blown-up black-and-white photo hangs above her desk. It’s a picture of the newsroom in 1895, a sea of men and one woman: Mary Taft, one of the first female reporters hired by the paper. Like most women at the time and many for decades after, Ms. Taft was relegated to writing for the “women’s pages.” She also covered the suffragette movement – until it became front page news, and male reporters took over.

By contrast, when Ms. Abramson landed her first job out of college, at Time Magazine’s Boston bureau, her boss was a woman: Sandra Burton, the first woman to become a bureau chief at the magazine. (Years later, when Ms. Abramson became the first female Washington bureau chief for the Times, she received a telegram from Ms. Burton at the overseas post she then held, saying that she could hear the glass shattering all the way from Hong Kong.)

In her own career, Ms. Abramson was more preoccupied with the struggle to nail down investigative pieces than with being taken seriously as a female reporter. “Most of my worries were not about fighting to get ahead.”

In her new job, Ms. Abramson is in charge of driving another wave of change – the one now taking place at the venerable newspaper.

“We’re in transition, and we’re the pioneers,” she says, remembering the days when the newspaper’s website was managed by a team in an entirely separate building. No more. The Times has been attempting to strike the very fine balance between finding new ways to make the money it needs to support its journalism, and not dropping off the social radar. Many newspapers that have tried to erect paywalls were hit not only with declining online advertising revenue but also with fewer readers and the threat of losing their place in the cultural conversation.

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