Abramson Takes Helm At The Times

The New York Times announced Thursday that Jill Abramson will replace Bill Keller as the paper's executive editor. Robert Siegel speaks with NPR's David Folkenflik.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The New York Times is going to have a new top editor at a crucial moment. Executive editor Bill Keller is stepping down. His chief deputy, Jill Abramson, will take his place starting in September. The change comes as the Times is hoping to convince readers to pay for its content online and on handheld devices.

NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik spoke with both Keller and Abramson earlier this afternoon, and he joins us now from our studios in New York City.

David, what would you say Bill Keller's legacy will be at the Times?

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: I think it's going to be a strong one, and his departure, you know, was voluntary. He walked into the office of Arthur Sulzberger, the publisher of the Times, chairman of the Times Company. And he told me earlier this afternoon that the conversation went something like this.

Mr. BILL KELLER (Executive Editor, The New York Times): He said, why would you want to leave when things are going so well? And I said, I want to leave because things are going so well. It feels like we weathered a lot of storms. You know, I don't want to desert the ship when it's rocking back and forth in the high waves. I'd like to hand it off in pretty good shape.

FOLKENFLIK: So think of the things that he handled. He succeeded Howell Raines as the top editor after the Jayson Blair plagiarism and fabrication scandal. He dealt with the fallout from what turned out to be terribly, terribly flawed and deeply wrongheaded reporting by Judy Miller on weapons of mass destruction in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq.

And yet, he built up trust over the years. They had to do that with some pretty intense reporting and with some pretty intense tension and hostility from the Bush White House for the Times' revelations about domestic wiretapping and other measures for counterterrorism.

He had to navigate also the economic crisis. There were two rounds of newsroom buyouts, something that the Times is not known for, and yet the newsroom still has over 1,100 journalists - a major, major presence for the newspaper.

SIEGEL: Well, those were the Keller years in brief. Tell us about - well, tell us about Jill Abramson's journalistic record.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, she sort of came to prominence at The Wall Street Journal. She was a very experienced investigative reporter, a distinguished Washington bureau chief, known also for the co-author of a book with her friend and colleague Jane Mayer on the contentious confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. It is noteworthy also that she has no foreign experience, which, if you look back over the last decades of Times executive editors, they all seem to have.

SIEGEL: Yeah. Keller had been both a Moscow and a South Africa correspondent.

FOLKENFLIK: Exactly.

SIEGEL: Jill Abramson will be the first woman to lead the Times newsroom, and let's take a listen at some of what she told you earlier today.

Ms. JILL ABRAMSON (Chief Deputy Editor, The New York Times): I'm extremely conscious that I stand on the shoulders of women, some of whom, because I didn't come to the Times till 1997, I never met.

FOLKENFLIK: So it's a historic moment. As she says, she stands on the shoulders of women previously. It took a class-action lawsuit decades ago against the Times to really open that newsroom up to women journalists. And, you know, the Times became a place now where they look at women as a CEO, Janet Robinson. They look at - Gail Collins was the former editorial page editor, and now Jill Abramson, the head of the newsroom. That's am important thing.

The new challenge for the new age really will be the question of the digital world of media. She took a sabbatical - it's called - of six months, where she really got deeply steeped into the world of digital publishing, how to connect and integrate the newsrooms for the digital platforms and the online website with the newsroom itself. People say she really mastered it and has helped give the Times new impetus and a collaborative field in a new way.

She's going to be succeeded as managing editor and aided by someone seen internally as a rival. That's the former L.A. Times editor in chief, Dean Baquet, currently the Washington bureau chief for The New York Times.

SIEGEL: OK. Thank you, David.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's David Folkenflik in New York City with news that The New York Times will have a new top editor.

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