Jill Abramson, at the helm of the N.Y. Times

Q&A: Jill Abramson - New York Times editor
Jill Abramson, executive editor of The New York Times

For those of us in any form of journalism these are changing and challenging times. And that's certainly true for newspapers - and for the woman who is now in charge of news coverage at The New York Times. Rita Braver asks the questions:

If this woman seems to be pouring over her morning New York Times with special intensity, simultaneously checking out the paper's website, well, she has good reason ...

Jill Abramson is the new Executive Editor of the Times - the paper's top banana - just a few weeks on the job.

"Give me an idea of your typical day here," Braver asked.

"Well, there really isn't a typical day, because each day follows the news cycle," Abramson said.

It is one of the most powerful jobs in the country. In an era when other newspapers have lost their clout, the Times often sets the agenda for what's covered and discussed by everyone else.

And 57-year old Abramson has final say over what gets into the paper:

"The premium is on, you know, the deep reporting, extra-analytical depth and heft of our stories - the 'only in the New York Times' kinds of stories," she said.

She mainly listens as editors pitch stories at the paper's legendary Page 1 meeting, whether it's Palestinians petitioning the United Nations for statehood ... or how the bad economy has led to a rash of pig pilfering in the Midwest.

Abramson is well aware of what this meeting USED to be: "Six older men, you know, gathered in a room, many of them smoking and just making these decisions themselves."

Now she is the first female executive editor, leading some 1,250 employees.

"I'm very conscious of the past battles that woman journalists waged to rise up in the newsroom, and that happened here at the Times, too," Abramson said. "It would be nice to think we would get to the point where it wasn't so remarkable when a woman rose to the top job at an important institution. But we aren't there yet."

Despite staff reductions announced this past week, the Times is not in as serious financial straits as many other papers, in part because it now charges for some web access.

And she has pushed her staff to consider the website as important as the print edition.

"Do you foresee a time when there won't be a hard copy, an actual copy of the newspaper?" Braver asked.

"You know, I have to be willing to entertain the notion that there might not be. But you know, people seem very attached to the Times in print."

While she rejects charges that the paper leans left in its coverage, she does admit to some mistakes. A big one: As Washington Bureau Chief, she oversaw publication of a series of pieces indicating that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, which turned out to be false.

"Is that one of those things where you wished that maybe you'd pushed for another point of view harder?" Braver asked.

"Definitely," Abramson said. "And I feel that there were sources in Washington who were dubious about the evidence, and that, you know, we let, the propaganda shut out the dissidence."

Mistakes like that hurt, because Abramson grew up in a family where the New York Times was revered. They lived on the Upper West side of Manhattan where, she says, she developed her distinctive way of speaking:

"I have an older sister who sounds, unfortunately, exactly like me, and we sound like our mother did. So all I can say is, it's in our genes."

Abramson decided to become a reporter while a student at Harvard. She worked at Time, several legal publications, and the Wall Street Journal.

In 1997 she ran into an old pal, New York Times writer Maureen Dowd, at a Washington book party: "And she said, 'Do you know any good women we can hire?'" Abramson recalled. "And I kind of gave her a What am I, chopped liver? look. And she looked at me and she said, 'You would never leave where you are and come to the Times.'

"And I said, 'Just try me.'"

She developed a reputation as a hard-hitting investigative reporter, then rose through the ranks to her current job ... along the way raising two children.

"Do you look back and wonder, how the heck did I do that?" Braver asked.

"No, I just miss doing that!" Abramson laughed. "My daughter's 28, my son's 26 now. But you know, I remember when they were little, I was one of the leaders of my daughter's Girl Scout troop. And when, you know, I was being accused of being a meany, tough reporter, I'd always say, 'Why, I'm a Girl Scout leader!' And it was true!'"

Life was good. But then, in 2007, Jill Abramson was hit by a truck in Times Square.

She had a broken femur, broken pelvis, many broken bones in a foot and internal bleeding. "It was rough for a while," she said.

And that's where Scout, an English Standard Golden Retriever, comes into the picture. As Abramson was recovering from the accident, she started feeling depressed. Her therapist, friends, and most of all her husband, Henry Griggs - who works as a consultant for non-profits - convinced her what she needed was a puppy.

"You know, a dog can snap you out of any kind of bad mood that you're in faster than you can think of," she said.

Abramson started blogging about her adventures and misadventures in training Scout. The feature became hugely popular on the Times' website, and she has now expanded "The Puppy Diaries" into a book.

"Did you ever have any colleagues, or do you hear of any whispering that...what...she's supposed to be our top editor...

Jill: of course, and you know that my colleagues at the times have learned that you know, i'm a kind of multi dimensional person...and they accept that.

And as for that final question you must be asking yourself?

"When you were paper training her, did you use The New York Times?" Braver asked.

No, said her husband, Henry: The dog came house-broken.

"We never had to use the paper," Jill affirmed.

"But we do have a friend-dog that visits," added Henry, "and whenever I put the Times down, I say, 'It's moments like these that we all appreciate the fuller coverage of The New York Times.'"

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