May 15, 2014

Never do media reporters look more like the parabular blind men describing an elephant than when describing a complicated management transaction at an operation as large as The New York Times, which changed top editors Wednesday. Different sources offer different frames, sometimes for the same events, and even the people who know best what happened may offer varnished accounts. This post aims to offer a wide-angle view of the elephant’s contours.

The New York Times building, viewed from across the street Wednesday. (AP Photo)

Why Jill Abramson got fired

• Wednesday afternoon Ken Auletta wrote in The New Yorker that Abramson recently “discovered that her pay and her pension benefits as both executive editor and, before that, as managing editor were considerably less than the pay and pension benefits of Bill Keller, the male editor whom she replaced in both jobs.”

“She confronted the top brass,” one close associate said, and this may have fed into the management’s narrative that she was “pushy,” a characterization that, for many, has an inescapably gendered aspect.

Abramson had also “clashed” with Times Co. CEO Mark Thompson, Auletta reported, and had planned to hire someone to oversee the paper’s digital operation without consulting Baquet, who the paper passed over in 2011 for the top spot. Still, he and Abramson had a fairly good working relationship, Auletta and others report, though Auletta adds: “I was told, however, that, at a recent dinner with [Publisher Arthur] Sulzberger [Jr.], Baquet said he found her hard to work with.”

• Abramson wanted The Guardian’s Janine Gibson in that role, David Carr and Ravi Somaiya wrote in The New York Times. The prospect “angered” Baquet, they report, which “escalated the conflict between them and rose to the attention of Mr. Sulzberger.”

• Gibson told The Guardian: “The New York Times talked to me about the role of joint managing editor, but I said no.”

• Abramson’s “relationship with Thompson got off to a rocky start,” Paul Farhi reports, “when the newspaper pursued allegations of widespread sexual abuse by Jimmy Savile, a longtime BBC TV presenter who died in 2011.” (Here’s a quick primer on that scandal I wrote in 2012.)

Imagine that: A newspaper investigating a powerful person! As he was winding down his tenure at the BBC, Thompson was contacted by two journalists pursuing allegations of child abuse at the Beeb: Neither got through.

Sulzberger “also was dismayed when Abramson didn’t initially head to the newsroom after Hurricane Sandy hit the New York metropolitan area in October 2012,” Farhi writes. “Her absence gave the impression that she wasn’t sufficiently engaged in the day-to-day management of a major story, and this was intensified by Abramson’s absences to attend conferences and speaking engagements,” a source told him.

• Nieman Lab Director Josh Benton had the best tweet about the pixelated narrative:


About that reported money dispute

• The New York Times pushed back against Auletta’s report, Dylan Byers reports in Politico: “Jill’s total compensation as executive editor was not less than Bill Keller’s, so that is just incorrect,” Times spokesperson Eileen Murphy said.

• Murphy told Business Insider’s Hunter Walker: “Jill’s total compensation as executive editor was not meaningfully less than Bill Keller’s, so that is just incorrect.”

• When Gawker’s J.K. Trotter asked about the different wording in those statements, Murphy told him “There is no discrepancy. Jill’s compensation was directly comparable to Bill’s during their times as executive editor. Not less, not meaningfully less, not considerably less (as reported in the NY’er), directly comparable.”



Don’t forget, there’s a new boss

• “This was not the way Dean Baquet was supposed to take the reins at The New York Times,” Michael Calderone writes in The Huffington Post.

Baquet is widely admired in the newsroom and has an easygoing management style. But he’ll have some work ahead of him in handling the most jarring management move since the 2003 sacking of executive editor Howell Raines in the wake of the Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal.

• NPR media reporter David Folkenflik, who posted an invaluable series of tweets about the change Wednesday, posted this as well:


• The ascension of Baquet, the paper’s first African-American top editor, “comes with tremendous symbolism,” Richard Prince writes in Quartz. “Such symbolism is important when, according to a 2012 survey of the American Society of News Editors, African-American journalists lost 993 newsroom jobs in the 10 years since 2002. This, at a time when the nation anticipates ‘majority-minority’ status.”

• The Times offers a profile of its new boss, who got fired for refusing to make cuts at the Los Angeles Times and “said that he did not intend to make significant changes to the paper’s news coverage,” Jonathan Mahler reports. “Most of what I want The New York Times to be, it already is,” Baquet — whose name, Mahler explains, is pronounced “back-EH” — told him.

Think pieces, etc.

• “At first blush, Jill Abramson’s brief tenure as executive editor of The New York Times looks like a striking new example of a familiar phenomenon — the miscast editor — in American journalism,” John F. Harris and Hadas Gold write in Politico. The style of her ouster and questions of gender haunt the story, they write, and so does “the larger question about the leadership and long-term vitality of the Times.”

If Abramson proved to be the wrong choice, there is not any mystery about who made it. It was Sulzberger, in the face of a long record in which Abramson’s strengths and weaknesses as an editor were well-established, just as they had been with [Howell] Raines [who lost his job editing the Times after the Jayson Blair scandal].

• Sulzberger’s explanation to the newsroom Wednesday was fairly opaque, Kelly McBride writes in Poynter. That attitude is “isn’t just frustrating to journalists. It’s dismissive of the audience with whom the Times presumes a relationship of trust.”

• Erik Wemple has the text of Sulzberger’s announcement.

• “If The New York Times is still the standard bearer of journalism, it seems also to be a thought leader in organizational chaos; after all, this is the second time in 11 years that Sulzberger has had to fire an editor for morale reasons,” Kate Aurthur, who has worked under both editors at different outlets, writes in BuzzFeed.

From my brief intersection with him at the LAT, where he treated the website with benign neglect, I hope Baquet really has changed his stance toward the internet. There is a reason the LAT is still digging itself out online after years of being run by lauded print editors who didn’t understand the digital future. The recent internal New York Times report called for more newsroom innovation, especially digitally. Whatever Abramson’s management issues were, her has been great. Can Baquet lead that parade? I hope so, for the sake of my NYT friends, and for all of us who still love what is produced there, daily, hourly, minutely. We all need the New York Times.

• Abramson’s “whole career at the Times tracks why it sucks to be a woman leader in America today,” Danielle Kurtzleben writes in Vox.

The reason publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. gave in his announcement about Abramson’s firing was “an issue with management in the newsroom.” That echoes reports that Abramson’s brusque leadership style clashed with leadership and reporters alike (criticisms that are near impossible to read as non-gendered, particularly in the news world, where pushiness is often seen as a virtue in men).


• NewsCorp bigwig Raju Narisetti calls Kurtzleben’s post “self-professed speculative bullshit.”

• In his account of the meeting at which senior editors were told about Abramson’s exit, Joe Pompeo reports “National editor Alison Mitchell suggested that Abramson’s firing wouldn’t sit well with a broad swath of female Times journalists who saw her as a role model.”

Our source who was in the room characterzed Sulzberger’s response thusly: When women get to top management positions, they are sometimes fired, just as men are.

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Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City…
Andrew Beaujon

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