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Scary and Hopeful: The Future of The New York Times

When Jill Abramson was growing up on Manhattan's upper West Side, her family maintained two subscriptions to The New York Times. One was for reading; the other for her mother’s crossword puzzle idiosyncrasies. The prominent role the Times played in her home makes the story of Abramson’s rise to become the paper’s first female executive editor all the more fabled.

I knew embarrassingly little about Abramson when she took the stage for a casual conversation with Evan Smith, CEO and editor-in-chief of The Texas Tribune, today at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas. Although the agenda stated the pair would discuss “the future of The New York Times,” the conversation ultimately explored much more, including Rupert Murdoch’s impact on Abramson’s previous employer, The Wall Street Journal, and the increased prominence of the writers themselves (Abramson referred to the 400 Times reporters with Twitter profiles as “sub-brands” of the paper), thanks to social media.

When discussing the future of The New York Times, Abramson insisted the paper’s coverage would become more global. She said its focus has evolved from the interests of New Yorkers, to national issues, to global concerns. She believes this pattern will continue, yet, acknowledged the need remember New York City, itself.

The key to the paper’s success is the quality of journalism. Abramson made this point clear – repeatedly and emphatically. She seemed willing to experiment with new technologies, different media formats (she’s a self-proclaimed “iPad addict”) and even various monetization options. What she clearly has no interest in reconsidering is the journalistic values of the paper.

There are surprisingly few editorial edicts at The New York Times. The newsroom determines which stories will receive supplemental multimedia content, and, more surprisingly still, there’s no universal policy governing linking to sources.

Abramson’s greatest asset appears to be her natural curiosity. For example, while evaluating whether the paper should merge the print and digital newsrooms, she spent six months observing how the digital newsroom worked. Abramson studied digital publishing technologies during a period she described as “scary and hopeful.” The decision to merge the two newsrooms continues to be a source of pride for her.

If quality of journalism is the key to the paper’s success, then humility may just be the key to Abramson’s. Despite being among the most accomplished people in publishing, she made a point of cheering individual reporters, past management, even members of the digital team for their contributions to the paper. She also found time to tease herself for her upper West Side “affectation” and, when asked about the viability of an all-digital revenue model, humbly insisted that she “would be a fool to be an economic soothsayer.”

The session covered many more disruptions the Times is facing, such as the role of social media in journalism (a “fire hose” for sources) and the new ways readers consume information (data visualizations are “an organic part of digesting our stories”), yet despite all of this uncertainty, Abramson made it clear that the crossword puzzle is under no threat. A promise that would have certainly pleased her mother.

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