Jill Abramson, attending a reception for the New York Times' "Cities for Tomorrow" conference in April.
Neilson Barnard/Getty
By Erika Fry
May 15, 2014

FORTUNE — Jaws collectively dropped in the media fishbowl yesterday with the announcement that New York Times editor-in-chief Jill Abramson was losing her job. Even the Times‘ crack reporters were initially “gob-smacked” by the news in their front yard, delivered to them by publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. — who merely said that Abramson had been dismissed over “an issue with management in the newsroom.”

But in all the talk about Abramson’s management style — and the important debate about whether or not women executives are held to a double standard — there has been little said on a topic that may be most relevant of all: In a just plain lousy environment for traditional broadsheets, Abramson’s newsroom was managing far better than most.

In the past decade, newspapers — the most bludgeoned segment of the ink-on-paper realm — have shut down, cut staff, gone online-only, thrown up paywalls, and/or outsourced content-producing to less vetted, lesser paid (if vetted and paid at all) community members and “contributors.” For a brief time, the Chicago Tribune and Houston Chronicle even relied on computer algorithms and a corps of writers in the Philippines.

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Yet while much of old media remains adrift (and still trying to figure out how to turn that thing called the Internet into a sustainable business model), The Gray Lady has managed its digital transformation relatively well. Its website leads the industry in delivering old-school journalism with new-age enhancement from data visualizations to video. Abramson, who spent her executive editorship with one foot in the future (and at the occasional tech media conference), deserves some credit for this.

Her tenure, which began months after the paper put up its paywall, brought a handful of digital initiatives that have served as models for the industry. In December 2012, the Times debuted a new digital storytelling platform for “Snow Fall,” a long-form narrative written by John Branch. The platform demonstrated both new creative and revenue-generating possibility for multimedia storytelling, and has become so widely admired and imitated by media companies, that the form itself is now known as Snowfall.

In March, the Times launched a handful of subscription digital products, including an app that curates news and others that highlight areas of coverage like food and opinion. It’s too early to know how well these have worked, but that Abramson committed newsroom resources to them is something.

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As Reed Phillips, of the media investment bank DeSilva and Phillips told me at the time, “My impression is these products are trial balloons, but at least they’re innovating. That’s the most important thing.”

He added, “They’re clearly the leader among U.S. newspapers in how they’re approaching the future of news.”

In any case, Abramson was clearly focused on the modern-day challenges of delivering the news. She and her successor, Dean Baquet, commissioned a team of journalists — headed by Sulzberger’s son, A.G. — to develop an Innovation Report for the Times. The group spent several months on the study and their findings — ahem, that the Times needs to move faster — were shared last week.

Ironically, that report led some to suggest that it was Abramson’s fault that the newsroom wasn’t further ahead.


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