It would be more interesting that Jill Abramson was named executive editor of The New York Times if the paper was not on such a knife’s edge for survival.
Much respected, Abramson can only be considered dynamic when compared to her predecessor, the bloodless Bill Keller. Keller is so laconic that his own wife has commonly disparaged him as a cocktail party killer.
But Abramson is hardly much more lively. She is best known for playing Rufus Wainwright music in her office and possessing a basso profundo voice so nasal it can grind glass and shred steel. You do not want to see her in a televised showdown against Arianna Huffington or anybody else.
But to some degree, that’s what this position is about. In this moment of media transformation, Abramson – the first woman to lead the paper – needs to articulate a vision of the Times’ enduring place on a fractured and unstable landscape.
Running the Times is no longer so simple as supporting great journalism, delivering the world’s big stories in a compelling and accurate way.
Representing the Times requires the force of religion and the passion of a preacher. Abramson cannot rest on her journalistic credentials or those of the Times to drive the sustainability of the paper.
Does she have it?
Keller was an accident of Times’ history — not publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr.’s first choice, but rather his fallback after the Jayson Blair scandal and the forced exit of Howell Raines.
And lately Keller seems to have failed to understand where the world of communication has moved. (Though the Times’ website continues to set the standard for digital excellence.)
He neatly lost a smackdown with Arianna Huffington when he criticized the blogging queen for the kind of content found on her site – which now has more traffic than the New York Times. Huffington mocked him for being a couple of years behind on her content.
And he drew round criticism from everywhere for tweeting derisively about Twitter (‘#TwitterMakesYouStupid Discuss.’) He seemed unaware that half his newsroom probably gets its news from the service.
Abramson is being touted as someone with digital savvy, as a steward of The Times’ experiment with the pay wall. But that remains to be proved.
Digital? Abramson does not even appear to have a Twitter account. (I’m thinking Jill Abramson “Boutique Manager of Christian Dior at the Mall at Short Hills. Passionate about fashion, couture and anything Dior!” is not her.)
Abramson is a respected investigative journalist. She took on the Anita Hill case. She emerged the winner of a Timesian political battle in the Washington bureau.
But she faces an identity problem: she does not have the cachet of an outsider, nor does she have the scars of an editorial triumph she can call her own from inside the Times.
That was reflected in the lack of reaction to her appointment within the newsroom. Those people I queried – and none wanted to be named, naturally – were not particularly moved. Not disappointed. Not excited.
“It was expected, not a surprise,” said one journalist. Another wasn’t even paying attention to the change. David Carr tweeted he was out of the building. Frank Rich was already gone.
Perhaps that’s because Abramson is deeply connected with the Keller regime.
Morale is not high in the New York Times newsroom. Revenues continue to slide – last quarter a dramatic 40 percent – which means that Abramson may have to face more painful decisions in the coming months.
It’s exciting to have a woman in the top editor’s seat at the New York Times. It will be better when we find out what her vision is.