With the newspaper industry in a state of flux, a time when the editors of The New York Times were scratching their heads over how to build a sustainable financial model for a 21st century newspaper, then-Managing Editor for News Jill E. Abramson ’76 hit the pause button on her daily duties and embarked on a six month sabbatical known as “Jill’s Big Adventure.”
During that time, Abramson immersed herself in the paper’s digital operations and toured the newsrooms of innovative online publications like The Huffington Post and Politico, an effort that in hindsight seems geared toward digitally grooming the future executive editor of the Times.
Today, Abramson takes over from Bill Keller as the executive editor of the nation’s arguably most prestigious daily newspaper.
But Abramson’s path to the top of the Gray Lady’s masthead has been anything but smooth, beginning at Harvard College and snaking through a series of American publications.
According to her friends and media reports, Abramson is a gritty, fearless editor unafraid of taking on daunting challenges while at the same time rising above one of the paper’s darker chapters in recent years.
Now, the Times—like nearly every other newspaper—must make hard decisions about how to position itself to ensure its survival, a challenge that has many worrying about the future of journalism.
But in Abramson the Times now has an executive editor who has overcome her own share of challenges—as a woman navigating the male dominated culture of American newsrooms, recovering after being hit by a truck outside Times headquarters, and moving beyond the Times often criticized coverage of the run-up to the Iraq war, which as Washington bureau chief Abramson oversaw.
Abramson began her career at Harvard just a year after the University implemented a co-ed living system. Abramson’s degree bears the name of Harvard-Radcliffe, and during her time in Cambridge the gender segregation of the previous era lingered.
Now, Abramson is the first woman to hold the position of executive editor at The Times.
A New York native, Abramson’s time at Harvard passed in the fashion typical of most students. She tried her hand on stage to mediocre reviews, wrote her History and Literature thesis on the unemployed in Britain during the Great Depression, and edited the Radcliffe Union of Students newsletter. She also met her future husband, Henry Little Griggs III ’76, at the College.
But Abramson’s path through journalism eschewed the traditional path of many professional journalists who have attended the College. During her college years she wrote as a stringer for Time Magazine. Then, in 1976, she covered that year’s presidential race for the magazine.
“I remember being in the bar of the Sheraton Wayfarer the night of the New Hampshire primary, so proud of the press credential dangling from my neck. I gazed at all the famous ‘boys on the bus,’ including Jack Germond and Hunter Thompson. But as a very young woman, I didn’t dare belly up to the bar. Those days are over,” she told the Times in 2010.
Shortly after graduating, Abramson was recruited to work at a start-up magazine, the American Lawyer.
But because the industry had previously received little coverage, lawyers were hesitant to talk to any reporter—regardless of age or gender.
American Lawyer, where tight-lipped sources were the norm, gave Abramson and her colleagues invaluable training as reporters.