New York Times’ Sulzberger took a risk; how about one more?

Arthur Sulzberger Jr.’s latest statement is a far cry from the May 14 New York Times news release about Jill Abramson’s departure, a missive that seems almost comically cordial now. Then, Sulzberger expressed his “sincere thanks” to her and she, in turn, thanked him for “the chance to serve,” calling him “a steadfast protector of our journalism.”

Addressing the staff that same day, Sulzberger would only describe the reason for the editor’s departure as “an issue with management in the newsroom.

Jill Abramson was gone and remained silent. Sulzberger thought he had said enough. But reports about the backstory surfaced from diggers like NPR’s David Folkenflik and The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta. The focus then turned, in large measure, to questions about compensation (was she the victim of pay discrimination?), style (was she really so tough to work for — and with?), the handling of her departure (why did it seem so cold-blooded?) and sexism (isn’t this just another example of women being sanctioned for behaviors that are valued in men?)

Then the world began to weigh in, with opinion pieces aplenty, including Poynter’s own, in which my colleague Kelly McBride and I both talked about the need for greater Times transparency about the firing. Much of the commentary came from women — about women.

It’s understandable.

At a time when women in journalism earn 17 percent less than men, when Abramson’s departure leaves no top 10 paper with a woman in the editor’s chair, when women are still underrepresented in the leadership ranks of many professions, when Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg wants us to “ban bossy,” a master narrative began to emerge: This firing must have been strictly about gender, power and money.

And that apparently didn’t ring true to the man who made the decision to fire Jill Abramson.

In an act that likely caused heartburn for attorneys and HR people, who traditionally counsel leaders to keep personnel reviews private, even in the face of public criticism, Sulzberger re-opened the conversation — with the kind of detail rarely shared about managerial performance. He said:

During her tenure, I heard repeatedly from her newsroom colleagues, women and men, about a series of issues, including arbitrary decision-making, a failure to consult and bring colleagues with her, inadequate communication and the public mistreatment of colleagues.  I discussed these issues with Jill herself several times and warned her that, unless they were addressed, she risked losing the trust of both masthead and newsroom.  She acknowledged that there were issues and agreed to try to overcome them.  We all wanted her to succeed.  It became clear, however, that the gap was too big to bridge and ultimately I concluded that she had lost the support of her masthead colleagues and could not win it back.

That statement carries with it no small amount of risk, including ridicule from disbelievers or litigation by his former employee, especially if her separation agreement contains a common non-disparagement clause. (To learn more about them, you could always check out this January New York Times Op-Ed piece.)

Those are risks Arthur Sulzberger is willing to take in defense of his decision, his paper’s reputation, and his own legacy. He closed his statement by speaking about — and then apparently on behalf of — the women in his organization:

We are very proud of our record of gender equality at The New York Times. Many of our key leaders – both in the newsroom and on the business side – are women.  So too are many of our rising stars.  They do not look for special treatment, but expect to be treated with the same respect as their male colleagues.  For that reason they want to be judged fairly and objectively on their performance…

May I suggest he engage in one more risk? Be introspective. Ask the women of the Times about the status of women at the paper today: their pay, their evaluations, their promotions, their ability to have their ideas gain traction and to influence change. Is the pride in “our record of gender equality” shared widely? How do you know?

If there’s work to be done, lay out a plan for improvement (just as the recent deep-dive analysis of the paper’s digital shortcomings and need for culture change away from print-centrism did so clearly) — and share it.

If the findings are positive, then by all means be transparent about that, too. The world could use some good news about women in the workplace. And don’t hesitate to note, if credit is indeed due, that whatever her “management issue,” Jill Abramson helped other strong, smart women succeed at The New York Times.

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  • Anthony Noel

    Interesting that you assume I only protest when a woman is victimized. I have quit jobs as a show of solidarity when male management peers have been “played” in same backstabbing manner that Abramson was. But even that does not change the fact that female managers suffer such treatment far more regularly, and most often at the hands of male managers – otherwise the term “glass ceiling” would not exist.

  • CJinPA

    See, that’s the problem. You started by declaring this to be about gender. “Men win again.” But you use as evidence an act of brinksmanship – which is gender neutral. So is it about gender or not? The evidence you cite says no.
    And if brinksmanship can force the ouster of men or women, but you only protest when it happens to a woman, ’tis you with the gender issues, not I. I plead for restraint and to not inject gender politics where it doesn’t belong.

  • Anthony Noel

    As top editor, male or female, the exec runs the show, and anyone who doesn’t like it can find a new job. The Times own reporting discloses Baquet’s brinksmanship, yet you, CJ, try (unsuccessfully) to shift the focus to whether women have ever done so. That’s not the question here, you know it, and unless and until you address the real issue – that Banquet stole the job by being a crybaby – I’ve got no choice but conclude you’re a troll. And a chauvinist one at that.

  • CJinPA

    Women don’t play brinksmanship? Absurd. What is it with the gender stereotypes? And inserting “journalism history” into the discussion is just repeating the mistake the Times makes when covering gender or race issues: facts that don’t help correct a historical wrong are ignored, truth be damned.
    How about the women who complained about Abramson’s “arbitrary decision-making, a failure to consult and bring colleagues with her, inadequate communication and the public mistreatment of colleagues?” Do they get victim status in this narrative? Editors get fired all the time. This rush to rescue a damsel in distress is, as I said, unseemly on several levels.

  • Anthony Noel

    Actually, CJ, the narrative was written in the Times itself Monday -and yes, the fact that a woman was not merely “involved” but VICTIMIZED – when journalism history was largely built on MALE editors, many of whom were nothing short of tyrannical – is the story here. Question that to your heart’s content, but when the Times itself acknowledges Baquet’s childish brinksmanship, your questions sound a whole lot more like indefensible justifications.

  • CJinPA

    Again, you are reaching conclusions without nearly enough facts. The timing of the “summary dismissal” has been addressed elsewhere: A meeting of editors, to be led by Abramson, was approaching. Having decided to dismiss her, they couldn’t let her run it. But if the meeting went on without her, questions would be asked and word of the firing would have leaked to the public before being disclosed internally. That is what caused the timing.
    We don’t know what role she played in the paper’s finances. The shift to a profitable online product was years in the making. I understand your sadness, but that is not an excuse for tarnishing the reputations of people who, for all you know, did nothing to invite attacks.

  • CJinPA

    Anthony Noel, we don’t know enough to make such an emotional claim. An
    editor threatened to leave if he had to continue working with a co-worker with
    whom he was at odds? You think this is the first time this happened? It’s quite
    common. But since a women is involved, the first response of many is rush to
    protect her tender feelings. There’s sexism going on, alright.
    I implore the people covering this to remain professional and keep an open
    mind. They are committing to a narrative before the facts are known, meaning
    that as facts emerge that challenge their narrative they’ll be tempted to alter
    the facts, not the narrative. That’s not journalism.

  • Ellie K

    It wouldn’t have been an issue if it were handled differently, with Ms Abramson’s professional reputation intact. Firing is all well and good, for ineffective staff and budget managers. But guess what: During Abramson’s years with the NYT, the paper earned awards, improved their website, and miracle of miracles, New York Times was PROFITABLE under her leadership! That isn’t the sort of person that needs summary dismissal. If Ms. Abramson was able to get NYT into the black again, a rational business owner would have kept her and told DPaquet or whomever to improve or leave.

    I found Ms. Abramson rather inspiring, thus this news is especially sad to me.

  • Anthony Noel

    Yes CJinPA, the paper needs to be more transparent. One thing that distinguishes “real” news outlets from fake ones is their willingness to shine the light on themselves. While the NYT has slid many rungs from its arguable perch of best newspaper in the world under Artie Jr., that doesn’t mean those of us who long for the Times of his father and grandfather’s turns as publisher should – or will – stop pressing him for the truth. Notably, the Times admitted today that Abramson’s ouster came at the behest of Dean Paquet, who threatened to leave if she did not. So it looks like the men win again – even when one plays like a 10-year old.

  • CJinPA

    While it is tempting to sit back and enjoy the feeding frenzy that outlets like the Times often engaged in and encouraged, this is a bit unseemly. The paper has to be more “transparent” to the rest of us about an internal personnel matter? It needs to launch an investigation of the feelings of the women it employs? Tally their pay? All of this while, for all we know, the firing could be 100 percent justified?