In 2010, New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller told New York Magazine, “If I got hit by a falling safe, I have no doubt Jill [Abramson] could step in tomorrow and run this place excellently. But I’m not planning to be hit by a safe.”
Though there's as yet no indication that the move was anything other than voluntary, that safe appears to have fallen—Keller announced Thursday that he's stepping down from his post to become a full-time writer for the paper. So three months from now, on September 6, Jill Ellen Abramson will become the first woman in the 160-year history of the Times to serve as executive editor. She described the move as “ascending to Valhalla.”
Fitting for her new position, Abramson, who now lives in Tribeca, is a real New Yorker, born and bred. Born in 1954 to Norman L. Abramson, a president of the Irish Looms Associates, New York textile importers, and his wife Dovie, Abramson attended the Fieldston School in the Bronx before leaving for Harvard, from which she graduated magna cum laude in 1976 with a BA in History.
After graduation, Abramson covered the 1976 presidential election for Time 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,” she once told the Times. “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.”
From there, Abramson went to The American Lawyer, where she was an editorial consultant. In 1981, she married Harvard classmate Henry Little Griggs III. Griggs, the son of an NBC News producer, was then president of Triad, a political public relations company. He is now a self-described “writer, editor and media-relations consultant specializing in nonprofit advocacy campaigns.” They have two children.
In 1986, Abramson co-authored her first book, "Where They Are Now: The Story of the Women of Harvard Law, 1974," and did a brief stint as editor in chief of the Legal Times before joining the Wall Street Journal in 1988 as an investigative reporter, eventually rising to become deputy Washington bureau chief. During her time there, she and Jane Mayer, a Journal colleague and fellow Fieldston alum, co-authored "Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas," a 400-page account of the controversy surrounding Thomas' nomination to the Supreme Court.
In 1997, Abramson met the Times’ Maureen Dowd at a book party, where—according to New York Magazine—Dowd asked if she knew of any female reporters the Times should hire. Abramson offered herself. She joined the paper later that year as “enterprise editor,” based in Washington. She was promoted to Washington editor in 1999 and Washington bureau chief in 2000. She also taught at Princeton during the 2000 academic year.
While in Washington, Abramson often found herself at odds with then-executive editor Howell Raines, who challenged her editorial decisions and even tried to relocate her to the Book Review. Abramson stood her ground, and in 2003, following the Jayson Blair scandal, Raines was forced to resign. Incoming executive editor Bill Keller asked Abramson to be his managing editor, part of a team meant to “restore confidence in the paper.” (Four years later, Abramson would testify in the perjury trial of Scooter Libby, which involved Times reporter Judith Miller.) She commemorated her return to New York by getting a tattoo of a New York City subway token on her right shoulder.
As managing editor, Abramson continued to write articles for the Times, including a 2006 piece about the significance of Katie Couric’s appointment as anchor of CBS Evening News. “This is yet another transitional moment for professional women,” Abramson wrote. “There will now be a female solo anchor. But there are still few women successfully leading the cornerstone institutions of our society.”
In 2007, Abramson was hit by a truck near the Times offices in Manhattan, suffering a broken femur and fractured hip, which led to intensive physical therapy. She filed suit against the truck driver and two companies involved in the accident, claiming “great physical pain and mental anguish.” (Dowd visited Abramson in the hospital every weekend, New York reported. In 2010, after Abramson broke her wrist in a hiking accident in Yellowstone, Dowd was the first to visit.)
In 2009, Abramson began a yearlong weekly column for the paper’s Home & Garden section “about the challenges and satisfactions” of raising her puppy, a golden retriever named Scout. “It is impossible to quantify the amount of love and work that goes into this human-dog transaction,” Abramson wrote in the final installment. Times Books will publish "The Puppy Diaries: Raising a Dog Named Scout" this October.
In 2010, Keller announced that Abramson would be taking a six-month “detour” to oversee news content on the Times website.
“Her aim will be to push our integration to the next level, which means mastering all aspects of our digital operation, not only the newsroom digital pipeline but also the company's digital strategy in all its ramifications,” Keller wrote in an email to the Times newsroom, with the subject-heading, “Jill’s Big Adventure.”
Now, with that digital strategy in place, Abramson will get the opportunity to see if she can make it work.