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.

On Thursday, May 5, a full 28 days before her promotion, Abramson moderated a discussion with senior Times editors in order to—as an invite for the event put it—“reconstruct how we responded” to the previous Sunday night’s 11th-hour newsbreak about U.S. forces killing Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. Abramson, as managing editor at the time, was heavily involved in coordinating the coverage.

The subsequent session was held in a meeting room on the 15th floor of The Times building for a standing-room-only crowd of about 100. Speakers included weekend editor Alison Mitchell and night editor Tom Jolly, along with several other senior editors, while Dean Baquet, then Washington bureau chief, called in by phone. (Keller, notably, was absent.) Together they re-capped the evening’s chaotic timeline of events, from the initial intel one of their reporters had received about the raid, to the historic moment when they literally had to stop the presses (Abramson gave them the green light to do so), to the process of conceiving an entirely new layout from the one that had been planned for the following morning’s edition.

“She takes the time to examine things like this to see what can be learned,” said an editor who was impressed by the effort.

“You’ll be sick of me there will be so many brainstorming sessions, meal invitations and small meetings,” Abramson wrote in a memo on her first day in the new gig. “I plan to attend the morning news meeting but, when big news doesn’t flood us, I’ll be spending my afternoons looking around corners, both digitally and journalistically, and soliciting your ideas on both.”

Abramson’s first staff-wide meeting is scheduled for late October. It will carry on the tradition of Keller’s famous “Throw Things at Bill” events.

“The name to beat is Jill Spills,” her memo concluded, “so if you have something better, send ideas my way.”

It helps that her lieutenants are all popular with their staffs.

“Nothing that is done by the top editor is done just by the top editor,” said Gay Talese, who is both an alumnus and historian of the Times. “There’s nothing that person does that isn’t out of consensus. When Jill Abramson was managing editor, she and the other masthead editors helped Bill Keller be Bill Keller. These new names will help Jill be Jill.”

Baquet and John Geddes are managing editors; Susan Chira, Rick Berke and Jim Roberts are assistant managing editors; David Leonhardt is Washington bureau chief; Joe Kahn is foreign editor; Sam Sifton is national editor. It's like the New York Times Building prom committee.

Talese went on: “When you join up” at the Times, “you are working in a historical context of trying to support an endlessly difficult challenge of getting it right, and to be fair, and also to sell newspapers.”

And to be seen doing it.

FOR WHAT IT'S WORTH, KELLER, TOO, MANAGED TO ENDEAR himself to his staff (at least in a way his predecessor, Howell Raines, did not) but the relationship between Keller and the people in that room at the Houndstooth was not always so rosy. And that project—the roll-out of Jill Abramson as the face of the paper to the public—depends on them.

“It’s always been very important that the editor also be the voice of the paper and the spokesperson for the paper,” said Alex Jones, the Pulitzer-winning former Times reporter who went on to author a book about his alma mater.

“You need someone to step forward when there’s a crisis,” he continued. “Someone who defends”—the Pentagon Papers—“or explains"—Judith Miller—“or apologizes”—Jayson Blair, Judith Miller—“when necessary. The editor can’t be invisible at a paper like The New York Times. Bill Keller made himself visible, speaking to people in the press, or publishing comments that would make their way into the blogs. I’d imagine Jill will do the same.”

Hence Thursday’s soiree, which featured an open bar and appetizer spread courtesy of The Times Company's communications team. As the gathered media reporters drank bottled beer and munched on cheese squares, crackers, spring rolls and hummus, Abramson navigated her first outing as the paper of record’s public face, making nice with the people who will almost certainly record her every waking move for as long as her tenure endures.

Keller seemed to have had enough of the constant scrutiny by the end of his eight-year reign, referring to his “obsessive chroniclers” in a staff meeting last November as “oxpeckers, those little birds that ride on the backs of large African mammals and eat their ticks.

Keller was apparently so fond of his metaphor that he reprised it in one of his columns for The New York Times Magazine several months later.

But insults aside, Keller did make a point of getting to know those who were covering the paper. And he was good about maintaining a dialogue with the press corps, as evidenced by the fact that beat reporters could always expect a speedy reply from him via email when they were on deadline.

What he was not was vulnerable, or even particularly open. And his remarks could also be quite obnoxious, of course, if he thought his paper was about to be unfairly maligned. Abramson will, it seems, be quite different.

As the evening wore on, Abramson completed her rounds, bouncing around the room on her own steam. By 7:45, she had said her goodbyes and thanked the reporters for coming. She darted out of the room; she was wanted at a Marc Jacobs Fashion Week event.

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