INCONGRUOUS IS THE ONLY WAY to describe the figure Debby Krenek cuts at the New York Daily News on this June afternoon. Blond, petite, and wholesome looking, the 41-year-old editor in chief is wearing a frilly black skirt, strappy shoes, and a red, gold, and purple blouse as she stands in the tabloid’s vast newsroom. By contrast, the deputies who surround her are grizzled, big-bellied men, bleary veterans of the city’s newspaper wars, and their clothes are standard office-drab. The group has assembled to choose the next day’s headline for a page-one exclusive about Mafia scion John Gotti, Jr., who had beaten up a drug dealer—something cheeky enough to attract the attention of more than 700,000 busy New Yorkers, who might otherwise buy the New York Post, the New York Times, or Newsday. One of the gray-haired vets hands Krenek a slip of paper that says “Goonfella.” She laughs out loud and gives her approval.

All this seems a long way from the quiet life she knew growing up in Central Texas, but that’s exactly why Krenek likes her job. “Coming from Taylor, a town of thirteen thousand, I never fancied myself the editor of a major daily in New York,” she says. “It’s a real thrill.” Originally, in fact, she fancied herself a secretary, a modest dream for someone who this year became the first woman in the country to edit a newspaper with so large a circulation—but then, Krenek is a modest person. The daughter of a dentist and his receptionist wife, she stumbled into journalism as a junior at Taylor High School by enrolling in a class on the subject when a typing course was full. While earning a degree in journalism from Texas A&M University, she worked each summer as an intern at the Taylor Daily Press, and after graduating in 1978 she landed a job as a copy editor at the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. Three years later, she moved on to the Dallas Times Herald, where she rose to executive news editor (her main responsibility was laying out the front page). In 1987 Krenek’s boyfriend, now her husband, landed a job at the New York Times, and she decided to look for work in New York—though she herself opted for a less highbrow paper. “Everyone said, ‘You’re absolutely crazy to go to the Daily News,’” she recalls. “I said, ‘It looks like a fun place.’ And I turned out to be right.” She found that tabloid journalism wasn’t that much of an adjustment. “You know,” she says, “the Times Herald used to rock and roll.”

Krenek started out at the News as a deputy news editor, responsible for laying out its hard-news section. It was a crazy period: She arrived just in time to witness some of the wilder, woollier moments in the paper’s history. First there was the bitter strike by employees of the News against its owners, the Tribune Company of Chicago. Then, just when the News was on the verge of folding, British press mogul Robert Maxwell stepped in and bought it. But soon Maxwell’s empire started to crumble, and then he died. Finally, in 1993, financial stability was restored by real estate developer Mortimer B. Zuckerman, who also owns U.S. News and World Report and The Atlantic Monthly. Editorial stability, however, was another matter. Zuckerman changed editors with gusto, replacing longtime News editor James Willse with Lou Colasuonno of the rival Post, then replacing Colasuonno with British journalist Martin Dunn—all within two years.

In the meantime, Krenek had risen to executive editor at the News. In that capacity, she demonstrated a mastery of the paper’s complicated logistical operations, introducing a new computer system and orchestrating a move to new offices. Zuckerman later commented that he thought she could probably run the Pentagon, so it was no surprise that he tapped her as acting editor in chief when he decided he was done with Dunn. Showing her Texas grit, Krenek asked Zuckerman for the job permanently, but instead he gave it to legendary newspaperman Pete Hamill. Hamill tried to steer the News in a more noble direction—typical of his romantic vision was his decision to serialize Norman Mailer’s novel about Jesus Christ—and he energized many of his reporters. But Zuckerman ultimately had a different notion of where the newspaper should go, and Hamill too was ousted. Again Krenek took over temporarily, and again she asked to be given the job on a permanent basis. This time, Zuckerman agreed. “She’s fabulous,” he says today. “She’s got energy; she’s got imagination; she’s got flair. What more do you need?”

Since taking over last October, Krenek—who says she was “happy but shocked to get the job”—has cranked up the paper’s coverage of celebrities, but she has also bolstered its substance by encouraging investigative journalism. This year the News has published a string of articles on New York’s asthma epidemic and falsely dated milk cartons and an analysis of the city’s transportation budget that persuaded bureaucrats to lower the price of a subway token. “This is absolute heresy in certain circles, but I think the News has been marginally better since Hamill left,” wrote Village Voice media critic James Ledbetter in his weekly column. “Krenek appears to value simplicity and clarity.” Preliminary reports indicate that the paper’s circulation may be inching back up after a period of decline. And Krenek’s mild disposition has charmed her employees. At the morning meeting that sets the paper’s lineup, she allows colleagues with larger egos, pushier manners, and more hard-news experience to direct the conversation. But at the afternoon meeting, she lays out the paper in a matter of seconds. “I don’t really assert my authority a lot,” she says. “My idea of leadership is to let people talk, then cherry-pick the best ideas.”

Despite these accomplishments, her job isn’t secure, given her boss’s temperamental nature. Indeed, shortly after Krenek was made editor, Zuckerman hired Random House’s president and publisher, Harold M. Evans, to oversee all of his publications. Yet contrary to predictions, Evans has not visited the News’s offices often, and by all accounts Krenek is firmly in charge. How long that will last is anyone’s guess, including hers. “I try not to think about it too much,” she says with an easy grin. But perhaps her incongruity will work to her advantage. Perhaps the least likely person to have the job will be the most likely person to keep it.