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NEW YORK — For the last eight years, outgoing New York Times executive editor Bill Keller and incoming executive editor Jill Abramson have had a certain Felix-and-Oscar distinctiveness as they’ve led the paper.
They were just so different. Keller has been fairly removed as a leader and seemed most comfortable behind his desk writing; Abramson has been far more hands-on. At an event at The TimesCenter two years ago, Abramson described Keller as an optimist whereas she was most familiar with the “department of dark worries.” She described Keller as the “soul of intelligence” — read: thoughtful, quiet, maybe even a little introverted — and that she was more of the “chatty Cathy.”
This story first appeared in the June 8, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
By this Labor Day, when Keller officially steps down, Times reporters and editors are fully aware that there will be a new regime on Eighth Avenue. Though Keller and Abramson have worked closely together for years, there will be a far different management style from up top.
“With Jill, it’s more about her,” said one senior editor at the Times, who requested anonymity. “When Bill is in the room, he sits there quietly. He doesn’t inject himself in the conversation, whereas Jill talks about herself or people that she knows. She’s just a much bigger presence in a meeting.”
And it isn’t just in meetings, either.
The source said that Abramson is “a lot more like Howell Raines,” the strong-willed executive editor before Keller who was pushed out of the paper after the Jayson Blair scandal (the irony in that, of course, is that Abramson and Raines famously feuded when he ran the paper and she ran the Washington bureau).
Another Times source said that she has “gut reactions to stories — ‘I love this! I’m bored by that!’” and that’s what will drive coverage. The source said that she isn’t afraid to speak her mind or “be confrontational in public.” Abramson has dressed down editors in front of others before, sources said.
This was not exactly Keller’s style.
“‘He just doesn’t care’” was a phrase heard over and over again from editors in the building — “unless they worked in foreign and perhaps metro,” said a Times source, referring to Keller. “The bored look on his face during many page one meetings was a signal to all in the room that he clearly wished he was elsewhere. Jill cares deeply, for better or worse, and will likely be a very hands-on executive editor.”
Keller, of course, cared deeply about uniting the newsroom after the Blair scandal and keeping the paper afloat over the last three years. But how did he feel about the day-to-day management of the place? Last week, when Keller spoke to the newsroom to announce he was stepping down, he said, “There’s a part of me that wants to say ‘Free at last!’”
It didn’t seem like he was joking.
One of Abramson’s first acts will be to find a successor for Dean Baquet as Washington bureau chief (Baquet will become Abramson’s No. 2 as the managing editor). There are the conventional picks: political editor Dick Stevenson or national editor Rick Berke.
But several sources said that there is one intriguing rumor going around the building: That Abramson is considering tapping her best friend at the paper, Maureen Dowd, to run the bureau. The two have known each other since covering the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court hearings and “when we heard the word penis in the very stately Senate caucus room, our eyes locked” and a friendship was born, Abramson said at The TimesCenter two years ago. Dowd does make some sense since she has been writing her column for 16 years — a long time — and she could easily slip into a role not unlike the late R.W. Apple when he ran the bureau. She would be plugged in, she could have an extensive TV role and someone else worry about managing the bureau. Abramson told WWD last week that the decision would come “soonish.”
Last week, after she was named executive editor, Abramson attended a previously scheduled brown bag lunch at the Page One conference room where she spoke about her reading habits. She said she doesn’t read the Washington Post the way she used to; she doesn’t read The Wall Street Journal as much as she used to (just like Keller); she’s a big fan of Junot Diaz and particularly his book “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.”
(In the past, Abramson has also said that the Times’ culture pages were the first thing she turned to in the morning followed by the business page. She has her years of experience of working in Washington, of course, and she is no stranger to a fashion show.)
Finally, after someone asked the question “What are you going to do as editor?” she surprised some and said that she wants continuity and that she doesn’t want to rock the boat.
But even if Abramson has a far more domineering personality than Keller, sources said it is possible there are signs that perhaps she will try to keep her outsize personality in check a bit.
“Jill has always been more tense than Bill and that makes other people tense,” said the senior newsroom source. “She needs to rise above that a bit and have the calmness of a great leader. But she has the job. There’s nothing else to prove. She can relax a little now that she’s in the throne.”