Report: Janet Robinson’s firing exposes deep veins of strife within New York Times

New York | The Boston Globe | The New York Observer
Former New York Times CEO Janet Robinson was fired, Joe Hagan reports, after tangling with Ochs-Sulzberger family members, Arthur ­Sulzberger Jr.’s girlfriend and the Times’ digital guru.

Hagan’s blockbustin’ article is a portrait of an executive suite contending with an internal family struggle maybe even worse than the bruising economic forces bearing down on it as the economy soured and the Internet ravaged traditional news consumption habits. Robinson, Hagan writes, had long enjoyed something of a platonic marriage with Sulzberger, allowing him to concentrate on publishing The Times while she fought various wolves at the door. He, in turn, protected her from people ruffled by her imperious style.

Robinson clashed with Times digital macher Martin Nisenholtz, who opposed introducing a paywall last year and retired in December. But he’d been weakened in the corporate suite because he oversaw About.com, a content farm that hadn’t foreseen how changes in Google’s search algorithm would affect its ability to successfully game search-engines.

Even though the paywall worked, Sulzberger’s girlfriend, Claudia Gonzalez, didn’t like Robinson’s style. And his cousin Michael Golden became a competitor for Robinson’s job after the company sold its Regional Media Group, which Golden had run. Golden wanted the company to sell The Boston Globe — Robinson didn’t — and push out Robinson, Hagan writes, which would also free up cash so The New York Times Company could resume paying dividends to Ochs-Sulzberger family members, who control its stock.

Robinson moved back against Golden, putting Sulzberger in a hard place:

By crossing a sacred family line, Robinson gave Golden the opening he needed to assert himself. Golden, an agent of his family’s unhappiness, and a man looking for a larger role, became directly involved in Robinson’s exit. In the past, Sulzberger had the authority to keep Golden and the rest of his family at arm’s length. Now, with the business struggling and his absences very much a matter of internal discussion, he was no longer in a position to protect Robinson — and, maybe just as important, he had lost the will to do so. His girlfriend didn’t like her. He had lost his digital guru because of her. And now his cousin wanted her gone, too. Sulzberger was up against the wall.


Sulzberger fired Robinson on Dec. 9, Hagan reports; her departure was announced on Dec. 15. “The news led to a wave of anxiety and antagonism at the paper, especially after it was revealed that her exit package amounted to almost $24 million, nearly half the company’s profits in 2011,” Hagan writes. That payout was the fruit of yet another tension, between the Times’ independent board and the family.

The Times is still without a CEO, and negotiations between management and the Guild are grinding slowly. Donald McNeil’s leaked email complaining about Sulzberger’s affinity for management gurus is an example of how Sulzberger’s leadership is being “openly questioned in ways nobody could have imagined a few years ago,” Hagan writes. The company’s perhaps even vulnerable to a takeover, Hagan writes, maybe even by New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg.

In the Boston Globe, David Abel writes that its publisher, Christopher Mayer, wouldn’t comment about whether the Globe was for sale. “Our priority continues to be our journalistic mission and running the business, which is necessary in order to support that effort,’’ he told Abel. “I continue to be pleased and proud with all the work that’s being done toward those ends.”

Poynter’s Rick Edmonds wrote last year about why a Boston Globe sale was “improbable (but not impossible).”

In a meeting with staffers Friday, Kat Stoeffel reports in The New York Observer, Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson conveyed Sulzberger’s vision to staffers:

The plan, according to her remarks, is to “expand from our core.” That is, to harvest profits organically from the quality work they’re already doing. Some staffers have been put in working groups to find ways to expand and monetize key areas like mobile, engagement, social media, video and international. The Times will also branch into international native-language editions with special news of regional importance, independent of the International Herald Tribune.

The company’s got cash on hand from its recent sales of the Boston Red Sox and the Regional Media Group. The disposition of that cash, and the company’s slow CEO search, is worrying analyst Douglas Arthur, she writes:

“It’s burning a hole in their pocket,” Mr. Arthur said. “Who’s going to make a decision about it? If you’re going to be a growth company, you need a growth CEO.”

Stoeffel likens the assets-sale cash to “a dowager selling her pearls.” And the Guild talks, she writes, aren’t coming to a close largely for aesthetic reasons:

But really, the lion’s share of the angst surrounding the contract negotiations seems to stem from their tone, which doesn’t jibe with some reporters’ sense that they belong to a family committed to defending journalism, united by a greater cause than turning a profit. …

“The message to The New York Times is let’s end the familial strife,” [Times reporter Dan] Barry said in his Guild video. “Remember who we are, as this kind of extended family doing the best journalism in the world, and let’s settle this and move on.”

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  • Anonymous

    I bought The New York Times Sunday to check in on the content. I can’t say that it was much worse than this weekend’s WSJ, but it was disappointing. I found “The Hunch, The Pounce And the Kill,” by Azam Ahmed on JPMorgan, to be entertaining. The NYT could set up a business education column to run every Sunday. (One of the most interesting sections in Chapters bookstores is “Business Stories.”)

    The NYT seems to be locked into triviality (its own private nightlock). An example: “The Most Comma Mistakes,” by Ben Yagoda. The magazine. The book review. Increasingly perfunctory. If you have virtually no mind, no respect for language and cognition, you cannot produce a great national newspaper. 

    The UK Guardian and Telegraph both contain fairly strong education coverage at times. The NYT has the bizarre The Choice blog. 

    The NYT does not do fundamentals. If the federal government and The NYT were to insist that business schools drop the GMAT and TOEFL, instead orienting powerfully to good business stories and the development of real skills (in Creative Suite 6, the COBUILD English Grammar, and Mark Ashcraft’s “Cognition”) as the basis of admission to business programs, there could be a revolution in business education. 

    The NYT would rather churn mediocrity so as to make some money. OK. So the paywall worked. But the paper shrank. Not only as a business, but it shrank intellectually. 

    I challenge The NYT to engage in the project I have been focusing on recently: 100 challenges for “The Hunger Games.” The first would be to describe the tense texture of that novel. Is it true that Collins’s novel is written in the present? Was the reaping drawing at the beginning manipulated? Why should Katniss have known immediately that it could not have been an animal that stole cheese from Peeta? Can we produce 100 challenges and motivate students to formulate 100 of their own?

    Suzanne Collins on “The Hunger Games:” “When I sat down to write this series, I assumed it would be like ‘The Underland Chronicles,’ ” Collins told the ‘New York Times’ later. “Written in the third person and the past tense. I began writing, and the words came out not only in the first person, in the present tense, in Katniss’s voice. It was almost as if the character was insisting on telling the story herself” (“The Hunger Games: The Official Illustrated Movie Companion,” page 10).

    I wish that when people link to a post they would click all the way through to see that there are no “freezes.” If you click through for info on Joe Hagan, your computer may seize up. 

    In “Reading in the Brain” by Stanislas Dehaene, pages 17-18, we have information on RSVP, rapid sequential visual presentation. What are the implications for journalism? 

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    The lady rescued the particular document coming from Nisenholtz. These kinds of electronic digital administrators are usually hazardous folks. They offer out vast sums regarding us dollars inside media and also them selves push tiny earnings. They will acquire large pageviews and also feel that they will struck any homerun wish 1200 particular person newsroom provided labor and birth in their eyes in 3 rd bottom. This is the first trouble regarding paper web sites. Web sites really should have recently been funded only from their particular attempts, certainly not simply by leaving your 2 cents the actual printing aspect produced. It could have got offered these a sensible look at of these genuine benefits were- almost no. As an alternative, printing income have been break up and several was presented with onto “digital revenues” to be able to soothe the particular egos of such electronic digital teachers.

  • robelroy

    Say what you will about Robinson, she pushed hard for the very thing that in the end saved the New York Times- The Paywall. And yes I say “saved”, as in the past-tense, for that paper is now already saved. For the last two quarters it has reported yoy revenue growth that is all due to the paywall (just that one paper- not the whole company). She saved the paper from Nisenholtz. These digital directors are dangerous people. They give away hundreds of millions of dollars in news and themselves drive little revenue. They get huge pageviews and think that they hit a homerun just because a 1200 person newsroom gave birth to them on third base. This was the original sin of newspaper websites. The websites should have been funded only from their own efforts, not by posting what the print side created. It would have given them a realistic view of their true contributions were- very little. Instead, print revenues were split and some was given over to “digital revenues” to placate the egos of these digital gurus. Digital ad revenues at the Times, like everywhere, are likely miniscule.

  • Mark Isenberg

        Mr. Golden was a poor manager of the regional news group as small southern papers were given limited reporters budgets so their news coverage shrunk and as the advertising declined after 2007,the quality declined with most editors just hanging on to their jobs until retirement. No tears for Janet Robinson who was pushed out with a large golden compensation package but the dysfunction between Arthur”Pinch”S.Jr. and his cousin Michael won’t help the Times longterm as it alienates long time subscribers who are unhappy with increasing subscription rates,delivery or paywall modes. The Times is one of the few media empires that will survive but if you notice the Newhouses ruining papers like the New Orleans Times Picayune and the Newark Star Ledger or the McClatchy chain in Sacramento ruining the Charlotte Observer, it is past time for shareholders of some of these media messes to demand more than a dividend but to tell the Publishers to do better work for readers before only senior citizens care about the news they read online or on the doormat or mail tube or newsstand…

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    And his cousin GOOD! became a competitor for Robinson’s job after!