It's not easy being New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson, the first woman to lead the Grey Lady in its 160 year history. And because The Times is the paper of record, it's frequently the subject of criticism — which has been especially harsh as of late. But every once in a while, it's best to lead with your right hook, not your pen. Accordingly, the New York born-and-bred Abramson responded to her many critics in an interview with The Daily Beast's Lloyd Grove, highlights of which are below.
Politico Made Jill Abramson Cry
Politico's Dylan Byers wrote a hit piece in April with help from anonymous Times staffers, some current, some former, calling Abramson all kinds of nasty things, including but not limited to: "stubborn," "condescending," "difficult to work with," "unreasonable," "impossible," "disengaged," and "uncaring." The impression created was of a mutiny brewing in the Times newsroom over Abramson's managerial style. The last editor to be so thoroughly demonized was Howell Raines, he of the Jayson Blair scandal.
"I cried," Abramson tells Grove. "I should say it went right off me, but I’m just being honest. I did cry. But by the next morning, I wasn’t completely preoccupied by it anymore. I had my cry and that was that." In part, she was able to get over the Politico hatchet job so quickly because she's been hit by a truck before. Literally:
[I]n May 2007, Abramson was hit by a truck near the Times building, and spent weeks in the hospital recovering from a broken hip and femur among other grave injuries. “I do think that almost being killed does help you keep in perspective small setbacks like a Politico story or a difficult personnel issue,” Abramson says with flagrant understatement. “Or maybe it’s just part of the aging process that I’ve gotten better at that.”
Nate Silver Was Kind of a Diva
Abramson also gave us a window into The Times' negotiations with star statistician Nate Silver, who will depart with his FiveThirtyEight franchise in August for the greener pastures at ESPN. Abramson led the intense negotiations to keep Silver; his departure for more money and a greater stake in non-political coverage was seen as a major hit for The Times's digital strategy.
It seems things didn't get off to a great start between the two sides, because there was immediately a debate about who had the upper hand: the beautiful new girl, Silver, or the established queen bee, Abramson. This is how Abramson tells the story:
"The first thing he said to me was, ‘I’m in a pretty good position because I represent the prettiest girl at the party.’ And I looked at him and I made sort of a face, like, 'Yeah, really?' And then I said to him, ‘The New York Times is always the prettiest girl at the party.'"
Of course, Abramson wasn't going to let Silver go without throwing a little shade on his decision. At Disney (ESPN's parent company), there are plans to build FiveThirtyEight into a franchise comparable to Bill Simmons' Grantland. Then again, he was leaving the most respected daily newspaper in the nation, which Abramson told Grove was a mistake:
I was invested in what I thought was a fabulous combination, which is FiveThirtyEight in The New York Times—which I do think greatly increased people’s interest in it, and its reach and its impact. And in my view he didn’t assign enough value to that, and that’s why we lost him.
Translation: I made you a household name, kiddo. Never forget that.
Jill Abramson Goes Full Godfather
The interview also tells a juicy story about Abramson managing dissent within her newsroom. Rick Berke was once a close ally of Abramson's at The Times before she became executive editor. But once he passed over for the managing editor position under Abramson, he subsequently spoke with The Washington Post about jumping ship for a top position there. But his fatal mistake, it seems, was possibly trying to bring then-metropolitan editor Carolyn Ryan with him. Ryan has since been appointed political editor, while Berke was put in charge of The Times' new video operation, which "was widely seen as a demotion," according to The Beast. "I think the world of Rick," Abramson told Grove. We're sure she does.