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

May 18, 2014
Category: Uncategorized

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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