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, 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.”

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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