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Former New York Times Editor Jill Abramson on the Paper's Future

The newspaper remains "an irreplaceable cultural institution," she said.

Jill Abramson still doesn’t know why she was fired as the top editor of the New York Times.

“I’m still trying to sort of figure that out. I’m not altogether sure. I know publicly what has been said by the owners of the New York Times and I have to accept that on its face, I suppose,” she said in an interview with Re/code’s Kara Swisher at the Code/Media Series: New York being held at the Steelcase WorkLife Center in Manhattan.

Abramson, 60, was ousted in May after less than three years running the newsroom, and her firing stoked debate about women leaders and whether Abramson’s management style was unfairly scrutinized because of her gender.

“You are who you are,” she said, citing the fact that she’d held senior positions before becoming executive editor. “I had been Washington bureau chief, I had been managing editor for eight years — it’s not as if I arrived from Mars with some shocking way of doing business.”

Just prior to being pushed out she had confronted her boss, Chairman and Publisher Arthur Sulzberger, after discovering she was being paid less than her male predecessor, according to reports from the New Yorker’s Ken Auletta. Sulzberger denied the contention, saying at the time he fired her because of her repeated clashes with editors and reporters, that she somehow had lost the faith of the newsroom.

Still, Abramson became a flashpoint for women-in-charge, who sometimes get tagged with coded descriptions — brusque, difficult, pushy — for doing their jobs. Fittingly, Abramson wore a necklace with charms that spelled out “pushy.”

“It’s a word that is used especially about women who are in a position of responsibility and power, and there’s a double standard in qualities that are seen as exhibiting strength in a man that are criticized through a different prism for a women,” she told Swisher, who shortly following Abramson’s ouster, penned a post in which she wrote, “I cannot tell you the number of times that I have been called a pain in the ass for my aggressive manner.”

Abramson had been with the Times for 17 years and prior to that was with the Wall Street Journal for just over a decade. But newspapers have been dying as advertising has steadily deteriorated since 2005. The Times itself has lost close to $90 million in ad revenue — print and online together — from 2011 through last year, and it’s been on a downward track ever since.

And while it has found some success with a paywall, after three years, its growth could be slowing, possibly topping out anywhere from 800,000 to one million subscribers. Still, Abramson sees that as a benefit to the Times.

“Eight hundred thousand digital subs is nothing to sneeze at — that’s a lot of revenue that wouldn’t otherwise be there,” she said, adding that before the Times launched the paywall three years ago, the common wisdom was no one would pay for news on the Web.

“You have to be careful not to conflate the decline of printed journalism with the decline of reported journalism,” she said.

Despite how she was pushed out of the Times, she said she remains a firm believer in the paper of record as “an irreplaceable cultural institution in this country” and that “its flourishing is very important to the future of real intellectual life in this country.”

As for what’s next in Abramson’s career, she said she’s looking forward to teaching a journalism writing seminar at Harvard this fall, and possibly also returning to a newsroom.

“Yeah, stay tuned,” she teased. “I think I’ve at least for a while had it with running something big. But without sounding immodest, I’m a hell of a reporter and journalist, and I’m going to go back to doing the kind of Jill Abramson work of investigating and telling important stories.”

As for where, she would only say, “I would like to be working at the highest quality kind of magazine.”

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