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June 2, 2011, 12:15 p.m.

Meet the new boss: Jill Abramson’s NYT ascent and its potential impact on the digital side of the Times

The New York Times will have a new leader in the newsroom. Jill Abramson will replace Bill Keller, who is moving to a writing job at the paper.

I’m sure Times Kremlinologists are already developing their theories about the move and its timing — let the #______MakesYouStupid jokes begin — but from our perspective, we’re most interested in the impact the new leadership will have on the Times’ digital strategy. Keller’s eight years in the top job have witnessed the complete disruption of the traditional business model for American newspapers, but the Times’ brand equity, market positioning, and quality have all given it a major advantage over its peers.

The Times has invested heavily in digital initiatives in the Keller era — I don’t have numbers to back this up, but I suspect their investment has been greater than any other American news organization. But that makes sense, since the Times has more to gain from the web’s easy distribution model than any other newspaper whose content is more tied to geography. The Times has national and global appeal, and fits perfectly with a medium that lets Times journalism reach that broad audience. From its large digital news operation to its massive adoption of blogs to its R&D Lab, the Keller era leaves the Times about as well positioned for a webby future as any of its peers.

A pro-digital mindset has never been unanimous among Times leadership, which has obvious and deep roots in print culture. The recent hubbub over Keller’s Twitter column was only the most recent iteration of the internal conflict. Maybe you remember two years ago, when a few Times reporters livetweeted a Times digital staff meeting, which led to a backlash from editors and other staffers?

Well, today, the announcement of Abramson’s ascent was semi-livetweeted by @nytimes, the newspaper’s recently humanized 3.2 million-follower Twitter account — Instagram photos and all.

We can only guess what Jill Abramson’s promotion will mean for the Times’ digital strategy — but to the extent that she’s carved out an outward-facing identity on the subject, it’s been notably pro-web. It was Abramson who took time away from her editing gig last year to immerse herself in the Times’ digital operations, which Keller said was Abramson’s initiative. (That move began on June 1, one year ago yesterday, and was supposed to last six months. The Times press release on the move quotes Arthur Sulzberger as saying: “Over the past year, she has immersed herself in our digital strategy and led the effort to fully integrate the newsroom.” So it would seem elements of the immersion lived on past the six-month span.)

Last fall, Abramson told New York she wanted to build incentives for staffers to become more web-oriented. “When you have a front-page story,” she said, “everyone is like, ‘Wow, great story!’ I’d like to get to a place where the celebration when something goes on the home page is as pronounced.”

Jennifer Preston, former Times social media editor, chimed in after today’s announcement: “For all of you wondering about Jill Abramson and the Web? Jill gets it. And she’s fearless. We’re lucky.” She added “Jill has always been highly supportive of our real-time Twitter publishing/curation efforts.”

And for those looking for more tea leaves to read, check out Abramson’s two most recent Talk to the Newsroom features, both from 2009, where she hits on some webby subjects. You won’t find much revelatory — no secret web strategies lying in wait for the right moment. Like the Times’ staff, we’ll all have to wait and see how she shapes the Times’ digital transformation.

POSTED     June 2, 2011, 12:15 p.m.
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