'Times' editor Jill Abramson opens up about layoffs, the time she almost quit, and loneliness at the top
9:05 am Feb. 20, 20132
Several months ago, New York Times Company C.E.O. Mark Thompson accompanied Times executive editor Jill Abramson on a trip to California, in which she took meetings with "some important figures in Silicon Valley," she told Capital. "It was a good opportunity to get to know him."
But Abramson, when I caught up with her last night after an appearance at N.Y.U.'s journalism school, would not reveal anything about the "new strategy for the company" Thompson announced on a call with Wall Street analysts two weeks ago.
"I know some things he's thinking about," she said. "But I think these are his things to share. So I wouldn't want to get ahead of him."
As for the Silicon Valley trip, it shouldn't be much of a surprise to those paying close attention. Upon hiring Thompson, a former director general of the British Broadcasting Corporation, after a long and contentious search for a chief that would bolster investors' confidence in the Times' future, chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. touted Thompson's track record of bringing the B.B.C. into the digital age as well as expanding its global audience, two key elements of the Times Company's long-term strategy.
Of course not all of Thompson's track record at the B.B.C. has been uncontroversial. When he started in his new job back in November, a scandal involving sexual abuse and editorial judgment was engulfing his former employer.
But shareholders and close watchers of the Times Company are more concerned about the business. Despite circulation gains attributed to the early success of the Times' paid digital model, which has captured more than 640,000 online and mobile subscribers since its implementation in March 2010, the company is still hemorrhaging print-advertising dollars, which were down nearly 6 percent in the fourth quarter of 2012. Analysts predict such declines will hold steady through 2013.
If Abramson's challenge is to steer the Times' news report as it navigates and adapts to the industry's rapid digital transformation, Thompson's is to develop a game plan that will ensure she has the resources to do it.
Last month, a painful newsroom reduction that targeted high-paid veteran editors and resulted in a masthead restructuring seemed to set the stage. Now it's time for Thompson to deliver. Abramson said she's been "working very closely" with him.
She wouldn't discuss whether additional personnel shuffling would be announced in the coming days or weeks. But at the very least, the Times has yet to name a new culture editor to replace Jonathan Landman, who took a buyout.
"There are always changes in the newsroom," said Abramson. "In terms of making our newsroom completely integrated, print and digital, there's constant change. And I would expect that change to continue."
Speaking of change, we wondered whether Abramson would give us her assessment of the revamped T magazine. The latest iteration of the glossy style supplement, which is designed to shore up the bottom line by pulling in lucrative luxury advertising, debuted Sunday with a new editor in tow: WSJ defector Deborah Needleman. Abramson was reportedly unhappy with the direction the title had taken under its previous editor, Sally Singer, who alientated certain ad buyers by making T an edgier read.
"I loved it," said Abramson of Needleman's first issue. "Deborah is first and foremost a fabulous journalist."
Abramson was not however able to attend any of the recent Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week shows as she usually does. She was in Cuba attempting to secure accredidation for a full-time correspondent in Havana, a quest that's bedeviled every executive editor before her dating back to Joe Lelyveld.
Abramson spoke with Capital following a conversation with Vanity Fair writer and N.Y.U. journalism professor Meryl Gordon. As their chat got underway, a few dozen aspiring reporters were washing down mini avocado sandwiches, white-pizza bites, macaroons and other snack fare with Fiji Water and Perrier. Some highlights from Gordon's hour-and-a-half-long interview are transcribed below.
On the stories written about Abramson's early days as executive editor, such as Ken Auletta's October 2011 New Yorker profile:
For the most part I did think they were fair. I mean I rolled my eyes at some of the stuff in them, but you know, I thought they were mainly fair and accurate. And not always complimentary. ... Ken Auletta did a really thorough job. Whether in the end it seems like the "me" I know, that's hard to say.
On her conflicts with former Times executive editor Howell Raines, under whom Abramson served as Washington bureau chief:
Howell from the get-go just had no use for me. ... From minute one he wanted me out. It was not only obvious to me but just about everyone. And it was known in Washington that this was the case and people would talk to me and they'd say like, "How are you?" like as if I had cancer. In my own mind I thought well, I'm the Washington bureau chief of The New York Times, I'm a pretty successful person. But I was suddenly a wounded person. I was deeply bothered by the fact that I didn't think Howell Raines respected me professionally. He always thought his approaches to stories were the right ones and he didn't want any conversation, and that's what bothered me. ... I did think about quitting.
On the "great fortune" of working for the Sulzbergers:
The Sulzbergers, and especially my boss, who is the current publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., they really believe in the mission of The New York Times. Arthur would be the last person to be talking about closing foreign bureaus. Right now, I saw him this morning, and he was delighting in, we had this big China hacking story. We have a new product that's a Chinese-language website with lots of Chinese news stories and it was really taking off and they were making advertising money and it was going great. And then we ran David Barboza's stories on the corruption of one of the leading political families in China, and our website was shut down [in the country], the China site can't be accessed in China. So today we had another big front-page story about hacking by the Chinese military in Shanghai out of this one address, and Arthur came in this morning and was like, exulting that we had this great story. ... He just said to me, "This is what we're here for, and this is what we have to do."
On the recent buyouts:
My strategy in approaching, first the voluntary buyouts, and then some layoffs, was that we were at a point in our evolution and in making the digital transition successfully where, some of the top jobs in the newsroom we sort of could no longer afford. They're great people, they're incredibly talented, they're Times people to the core, they do have amazing institutional memory, but in some ways, they were editors of editors. We just had a lot of layers. The newsroom now, you need to have direct reports of all kinds, and that's just an extra layer that we can't afford, and I questioned whether we still needed some of those jobs. It's painful, it's horrible. These are people I love seeing in the office every day. But instead of going helter skelter—once in the past we had to achieve the same level of monetary savings, during the 2008 financial crisis, and there, between buyouts and layoffs, we got rid of maybe 75 people. This time it was around 30.
"The New Yorker now uses 'fuck' on a regular basis. Is there some point where the Times is going to allow swear words?," asked Gordon:
We have allowed some swear words in. ... If a swear word is gonna be used and is actually consequential to the actual news in the story, which in some cases it is, we make exception. But it's part of the tradition of the Times to use, you know, "Mr. Sullivan." It's an elegant presentation of the news, and that's still important to me, to keep it elegant.
On the biggest drag of being executive editor:
I don't get to complain anymore. It's just true. Some of the most delicious time that you spend as a journalist is like, complaining. At no times have I had fewer actual friends to gossip with, and kind of complain with, or at least commiserate with. That is a hard part of being the boss. Newsrooms are just full of cantankerous complaining people. It's so enjoyable to be part of that.
Disclosure: I recently freelanced for the Times' Styles section.
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