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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 ...

The Times has responded by erecting a paywall that is positively full of holes. It allows readers access to 20 articles a month for free, as well as Times blogs and anything they find through a link on social media such as Facebook or Twitter. When it launched the new paywall, the Times was criticized for a paper tiger approach. But Ms. Abramson contends it has safeguarded the newspaper’s place in people’s daily media habits – and has also managed to get the most-engaged readers to support the product financially. More than 300,000 of them have obliged – through new digital subscriptions or combined print-and-online subscriptions – which has helped to improve the performance of that weekend brunch tradition, the fat printed Sunday Times.

At the same time, the paper is fighting to produce high-quality free content, to keep Web traffic and advertising up. Its India-focused blog, India Ink, is free, as are a number of new mobile applications, or apps, which are new so it’s difficult to charge for them. Once readers see their value, Ms. Abramson suggests they may also be brought behind the paywall.

“There is still a yearning for information that is diligently gathered, intelligently analyzed, and for stories that are elegantly edited and told. I see that appetite growing.”

She says all this as she methodically strikes at her own appetite with an endive and radicchio salad, and some steamed salmon served with barley, a catered lunch she has eaten with visitors before.

This image of Ms. Abramson as a hard-charging, brusque and demanding leader is only part of the picture. “All of these profiles make me sound like such a serious person, and I think of myself as a humorous person,” she says during our hour-long conversation, during which she rarely cracks a smile.

Still, there is evidence of a lighter side. She is one-half of a lasting marriage and a demonstratively proud mother of two. And, after years as a hard-boiled political reporter and editor-on-the-ascent, with two serious books under her belt, she published a book entirely devoted to her golden retriever.

The Puppy Diaries came out of an online column she wrote about the first year of her dog’s life, and was a weekend project, “pure fun and pure joy.” The awkward timing of its release, just as she was appointed to arguably the most serious post in American journalism, has been remarked upon and occasionally mocked. (“Are you writing about her dog?” famed publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. asks impishly when we meet in the hallway and he is told whom I’m interviewing.)

If Ms. Abramson worries about her humorous side getting lost, her self-portrait of a smitten dog owner, stuffed with literary allusion, should put that concern to rest: The original column revealed that Scout is named for the character in To Kill a Mockingbird; she feels the need to distinguish that Henry is “my husband, not O.”; and one instalment was entitled “Chewing Toward Bethlehem.” At home, with the dog, Ms. Abramson wrote that Henry is the “pack leader” in the vocabulary of Cesar Millan, the self-proclaimed Dog Whisperer and pet training guru.

But here at the Times, she is very much the Alpha – and while she has benefited from the struggles of the women who came before her, she knows it’s still rare enough to have a woman be the leader. In the corridors of power her paper peers into, women are taking more executive roles but it’s still “not that many,” she notes. At the Times’ Page 1 meetings, there are still more male faces around the table.

But when she graduated from Harvard and started her career, New York Times Co. was embroiled in a class-action lawsuit by employees alleging widespread gender discrimination. Now its CEO is a woman, and Ms. Abramson runs the newsroom where Mary Taft was an outlier. And conversations about her gender are nothing more than a temporary distraction from the job she’s here to do – not just producing tomorrow’s paper, but helping to mould a future for the news that’s fit to print.

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