New York Times' Abramson On 2012 Coverage, Alleged Liberal Bias, And Roaming The Newsroom

Three weeks into her new job as executive editor of The New York Times, Jill Abramson is set to ratchet up the paper's 2012 campaign coverage with a big meeting this weekend.

“I am going to Washington next Sunday for a big kick-off meeting,” she told Media Matters by phone this week. “We're getting a lot of our main politics reporters together in Washington to begin. We have already been knee-deep in the coverage ... We stay very much on top of what's going on. We definitely stay away from minutia, the kind of stuff that would only appeal to the hardest core political junkie. But of course, we have offerings for them as well. That's part of our audience, too.”

Abramson, the former Washington bureau chief and managing editor who replaced Bill Keller on September 6, shared her views on political coverage, newsroom organization, and leading a newspaper that is both a journalistic icon and a target for claims of liberal bias.

“I do think it's a misunderstanding,” she said, disputing claims that the paper's liberal editorial page bleeds into its news reporting. “And I think as an editor I've always gone out of my way to guard against reflecting any viewpoint and emphasize to our reporters that when they begin their reporting they should not have their conclusions already in mind about what the story is or what it should say. It's true that the ... Times editorials often reflect the liberal viewpoint. But I also worked for 10 years at The Wall Street Journal where the editorials reflected a very conservative viewpoint and the news report was straight at the Journal. I feel that that's what we aim to be, too.”

Asked how the Times competes with other news outlets that spew slanted, inaccurate or rumor-plagued coverage, Abramson said such approaches help the Times standout.

“There is a lot of noise out there, but in some ways I think it makes The New York Times' place in the media eco-system all the more important because of our accuracy and authority and the fact that when you read it in the Times you can depend on it. I think that's why we remain the biggest newspaper web site and we have a loyal readership like no other.”

She criticized the focus by some news outlets on the “minutia” of the campaign, stating: “My word for some of that news is 'scooplets.' They are not really, they are kind of evanescent.”

But Abramson, who would not cite specific “minutia” outlets, gave most political coverage today a good grade:

“I think in its totality, political coverage is still, across-the-board, strong. I'm thinking of, you know, some pieces that our competitors have had lately, that I thought were very good. Ryan Lizza's piece on Michele Bachmann and the ideas that animate her campaign and the intellectuals that have had an influence on her particular brand of conservatism. I thought that was a very good, strong in-depth piece. I think that at the Times we are approaching this campaign with a lot of firepower and we've started to unfurl the long pieces on the candidates backgrounds that we call The Long Run, we've been doing those for years now, for several cycles."

Ask Abramson about the paper's biggest challenge these days, and it's not The Wall Street Journal or Washington Post. Says Abramson:

“I would say the biggest challenges right now are on the digital front, it's to protect our well-deserved reputation for being very innovative on the web and in our apps and on mobile, just making sure we have the right people in the right jobs and enough resources to stay on the cutting edge of a big challenge, but one that I very much feel up to.”

What makes it a challenge?

“Competition now comes from every direction it seems, and that is a challenge.”

After several years of buyouts and furlough days that have cut staff strength, Abramson sees no plans for further reductions. But she has changed her own job to a degree, handing off much of the daily news decision-making to Managing Editor for News Dean Baquet.

“I've given him broad authority over the daily news report,” Abramson said of Baquet, former Times Washington bureau chief and past editor of the Los Angeles Times. “I don't go to the front page meeting in the afternoon. I think I'm the first executive editor who hasn't.

”We have a morning meeting at 10 where we pick likely stories for the front page. And that meeting is more focused on what's leading our home page and when certain stories are coming in. It's a good meeting for me, it gives me the lay of the land in terms of what the most important news events of the day are and what our best enterprise journalism is. But I let Dean lead. ... Dean is the most senior editor in charge."

Abramson said she takes more time to roam the newsroom and chat with reporters about stories.

“It is allowing me to allocate my time so there is plenty of time for dealing with some matters involving our digital news report and it is also giving me that time to walk around and engage with our journalists. You know, meet with groups of reporters and kick around story ideas, which is, by my measure, the best way an editor can possibly spend their time.”

Asked about changes ahead, Abramson hinted that in-depth stories will be prominent.

“I'm not sure that it's a big change, but I think everybody who worked with me as managing editor knows that the kind of stories I love are the story behind the story, full of narrative detail,” she said. “I will push for our coverage always to get behind the curtain.”

One area Abramson seems to differ from Keller is in criticizing Fox News. Keller was not shy about being critical of the “fair and balanced” network. Twice this year, he referred to the network's “cynical” viewers.

Asked for her take on the Murdoch-owned network, Abramson declined comment.

She also declined to criticize The Wall Street Journal, another Murdoch property that has drawn criticism from some current and former Journal staffers. Abramson spent nearly a decade there before joining the Times in 1997 and offered only praise.

“I keep a close eye on their coverage and consider them a competitor for sure,” Abramson said. “And, you know, respect a lot of the work that they do.”

But what about Murdoch's influence there? No comment.