The ‘Times’' new editor spends an evening among the oxpeckers

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Jill Abramson. ()
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A little after 6 p.m. on the evening of Sept. 15, Jill Abramson was mingling with reporters in a private room at the Houndstooth Pub at 37th Street and Eighth Avenue.

The reporters were of that breed—the media press—that lives to detail the goings on three blocks up at The New York Times building, where Abramson recently started in her role as top editor of the paper.

The outing to the multilevel gastropub, which is owned in part by members of the Northern Irish alt-rock band Snow Patrol, was orchestrated. Aside from a profile a few years ago in Elle by Andrew Goldman, the press has mostly focused on the man who for the last eight years has been Abramson’s boss, Bill Keller. In the mythmaking documentary Page One, a chronicle of the lives of a group of media reporters at the Times, Abramson makes a single appearance, to mumble out her decision that a certain story will be struck from the front pages of national editions at a Page One story meeting. Her glasses are on the tip of her nose, and she strikes out a note on a piece of paper as she speaks.

Back at the Houndstooth, some of the reporters were already making their initial assessments.

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"My first impression is that she's quite short, incredibly kind, and very accessible, though that was undoubtedly her duty for the evening," said one.

It was, and she did well.

“We thought it would be good for Jill to meet everyone,” said Danielle Rhoades-Ha, one of the spokespeople who put together the on-the-record cocktail hour, “and for people to get a sense of who she is and to know that she’s very approachable.”

After being grilled by one of the reporters, who had shown up to the meet-and-greet on the early side with pen and legal pad already out, the editor, who can't be more than a hair or two over five feet, with blunt-cut short dirty-blond hair and a kind-looking face, dressed in a dark drapey cardigan over a white shirt with zig-zagging black stripes, circulated around the room apparently at ease. She was a charmer.

“I was edited by Tina once,” Abramson said to a writer from Newsweek who had come to the event, near a high-top table against the wall. It was a piece for The New Yorker that Abramson had co-bylined with her longtime friend and former high school classmate, Jane Mayer, in the early '90s. Tina Brown, then editor of The New Yorker, scrawled a note on the back of their draft that would be her signature editorial proclamation: "V. hot."

“I thought, ‘Oh wow,’” said Abramson, gushing. “‘Tina thinks I’m v. hot!’”

As the conversation carried on, Abramson reached for the glass of white wine she'd been nursing.

A recent Twitter event came up: She’s been using the micro-blogging site since June, starting exactly one week after the paper announced she would be its next executive editor (and first woman in the role). Three months, 9,330 followers and 20 tweets later, the other evening was probably her Twitter breakthrough, in an exchange with Aziz Ansari, star of the television show "Parks and Recreation."

Ansari declared his candidacy for the recently vacated position of Times restaurant critic. “Thanks for the interest, but we wouldn't want to distract you from your efforts at Entertainment 720 with Jean-Ralphio,” Abramson tweeted in reply, dropping an insidery reference familiar to fans of the NBC comedy.

“I’m slowly catching on,” she said.

The other thing to catch on to is to be the person in charge of the world's most important newspaper. She said that she'd spent the summer in a state of anticipatory worry; since Sept. 6, when she started in the role, some of that insecurity has faded. But not all.

“I want to do well in this job,” she said, “and sometimes I worry that I won’t.”

BACK IN JUNE, SHORTLY AFTER ABRAMSON'S promotion was announced, there was a brown-bag lunch in the newsroom so people could get to know her better. According to a person who was there, she said she was worried, with this new appointment, that she would be called out as an imposter. As if all of her qualifications and achievements in the field (star investigative reporter and deputy Washington bureau chief during her decade at The Wall Street Journal, to name a few) didn’t cut it; as if at any time, someone might accuse her of having faked it as she meteorically ascended the Grey Lady’s ranks, from reporter to Washington editor to D.C. bureau chief to managing editor and, finally, captain of the ship. Likewise, in the days leading up to Sept. 6, she wasn’t shy about letting those around her know how nervous she was about assuming such a massive responsibility.

“You get the sense of someone who is comfortable being their real self and sharing their vulnerability and humanity,” said a veteran Times editor who’s worked closely with her. “She doesn’t strive to be somebody she’s not. She’s a real person.”

This editor likewise praised Abramson’s people skills: “From my experience in the news meetings, Joe Lelyveld used to be rather intimidating. Howell Raines would just carry on and talk a lot, often through the prism of talking about himself. Jill is much more in Bill’s relaxed mode—not wanting to dominate, but also making sure people know what her concerns are.”

Another editor suggested a key distinction between Abramson and Keller: “He always seemed to be grumping or mulling something privately. She’s much more open. It just feels like she listens.”

Abramson's vulnerability, and her candor about it, seem to be endearing her to the paper’s staff as the Jill Abramson Roll-Out runs its course. Insiders admiringly described their new boss as smart, social, direct. Not afraid to tell you what’s on her mind. Down to earth. Authentic. Quite funny, too, they said. Good sense of humor. Makes wisecracks that put people at ease. Not bashful about parading around in her workout clothes. Honest about her insecurities.

But vulnerability, openness, and candor are not always sustainable qualities in a top editor. Abramson’s leadership qualities over the past several months also have received high marks from staffers. During the Sunday of Hurricane Irene, for instance, she made an appearance in the newsroom, knowing that this was where a number of weather-weary Times journalists were spending their weekend. After the storm passed, she sent a note to the staff to thank them.

“The force of your work was felt everywhere,” she wrote. “I am grateful to everyone who made it in … under difficult circumstances and to those who managed from home.” Someone who received the email said: “It seems like a small thing, but people appreciate and respect her for that because this sort of attention is rare from big newspaper managers these days.”

Several staffers asked to talk about the roll-out remembered something that happened well before her predecessor announced he was stepping down from the job.