For 160 years the New York Times has been setting the standards of newspaper journalism in America, with one significant exception – gender equality. Now the paradoxically nicknamed Gray Lady has finally redressed the balance with the appointment of its first female editor.
Jill Abramson will inherit the post of executive editor of the paper on 6 September, taking the helm of one of the most influential and widely read news organisations in the world at a time of deep turmoil in the newspaper industry.
Her appointment was greeted as a boost for women in a business that at the highest levels of management remains heavily male-dominated. Tina Brown, herself a Titan of New York media as former editor of the New Yorker and now at the website the Daily Beast, hailed it on Twitter as “a triumph for women in media”.
Vanity Fair’s contributing editor, Sarah Ellison, said Abramson was eminently prepared for the top job. She was the kind of journalist who showed no fear “and carries herself well in a business that doesn’t always welcome women in positions of authority”.
Abramson, who has worked at the paper since 1997 with stints as investigative reporter and Washington bureau chief, takes over the reins from Bill Keller, who stands down after eight tumultuous years. He began his tenure as editor in 2003 and was immediately presented with the challenge of stabilising the newsroom after the Jayson Blair scandal, in which a reporter was found to have been fabricating stories.
He directed the paper through choppy waters in its relationship with the Bush administration, earning the then president’s wrath with a steady stream of scoops on the US government’s use of phone tapping and torture.
Together with international partners, including the Guardian, he helped steer a path through the vast WikiLeaks disclosures of US state secrets.
But the Keller years may come to be remembered most as those in which the challenge – and threat – of the digital age came home to roost with a massively expanded website readership matched by dwindling revenues and newsroom cuts. That conundrum will undoubtedly remain a preoccupation for his successor.
Abramson inherits a large and growing digital presence which places the New York Times at the top of the world league table for newspaper traffic.
Comscore’s latest figures put it at 46 million unique users a month, 33 million of which are in America.
In March the publisher of the New York Times, Arthur Sulzberger, whose family has a controlling stake in the company, rolled out a system of digital subscriptions in an attempt to turn web traffic into profit. Early results suggest that the construction of a partial paywall on its content may have come at the cost to the paper of 24% of its website page views.
Abramson is no stranger to the challenges ahead, having spent much of the last year leading the organisation’s digital strategy on the editorial side. But the task remains daunting.
“Like the head of any news organisation today, she has the job of figuring out how to broaden the appeal of the Times to digital readers without watering down its standards,” said Howell Raines, her predecessor but one, who edited the paper during the troubled Jayson Blair period.
While the digital future may prove the defining test of her term in the hot seat, the accolade of first woman editor of the Gray Lady will long resonate. Women have edited important American regional newspapers before, such as the Portland Oregonian and Atlanta Journal Constitution, as well as nationwide institutions such as news agency Associated Press. But the New York Times has such stature within the country’s newspaper landscape that this constitutes a resounding blow to the glass ceiling.
Anne Marie Lipinski, who edited the Chicago Tribune from 2001 to 2008, says that when she took that job she didn’t realise it would be such a big deal.
“It didn’t register for me as a moment, but I discovered that it certainly did matter for lots of other people, particularly many women working for me. I was held as some kind of role model, which at this point in human history seems a little dusty now.”
Lipinski remembers being interviewed by a Japanese reporter who asked her whether there were many other women in charge of major US papers. As a result of the journalist’s limited command of English, the question was phrased as: “Are there any other large ladies?”
Tickled by the idea, Lipinski set up a Large Ladies dinner in which top female executives of American papers came together every year to share experiences and lend mutual support. “It was,” she recalls, “a small, but very hearty group.”
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