Turmoil at the Top: Why the NY Times dumped Jill Abramson

There was a time when the dismissal of the New York Times executive editor would have been dressed up as a voluntary resignation, while a few outside reporters poked around for juicier details.

That era is over. In its own online story yesterday about the abrupt departure of Jill Abramson, the paper made clear that she had been “dismissed.” And that came as a shock to much of the paper’s staff, as well as the media industry.

The modern Times, with one prominent exception, has prided itself on orderly transitions, as the baton was passed from the likes of Abe Rosenthal to Max Frankel to Joe Lelyveld as each man reached retirement age.

No one expected Abramson, 60, the first woman to lead the newsroom, to be shown the door after three years. She has been replaced by Dean Baquet, the managing editor, who will become the first African-American to hold the top job at the Times.

“In announcing the sudden switch to a stunned newsroom Wednesday afternoon,” the Times story said, “Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the publisher of the paper and the chairman of the Times Company, attributed the move to ‘an issue with management in the newsroom.’ Her ouster, according to people in the company briefed on the decision, came after growing tension between Ms. Abramson and Mr. Sulzberger, and a decision by Ms. Abramson to try to hire a senior editor from outside the newspaper to share a co-managing editor title with Mr. Baquet.”

So there was tension between the two top editors, and Sulzberger decided to elevate his No. 2. It was the most abrupt switch since he dismissed Howell Raines, who presided over the Jayson Blair fabrication debacle, in 2003, in favor of Bill Keller.

But everyone knew Raines was in trouble. And while there had been grumbling about Abramson’s sometimes abrasive management style—perhaps louder than might have been the case if she were not a woman—no one thought her job was in jeopardy.

Abramson stayed on the high road in a statement, saying: “I’ve loved my run at The Times. I got to work with the best journalists in the world doing so much stand-up journalism.”

Abramson is a onetime Wall Street Journal investigative reporter and former Washington bureau chief for the Times, a position in which she clashed with Raines. While the paper did not shed its left-leaning reputation under Abramson, she did accuse President Obama of running “the most secretive White House that I have ever been involved in covering.” And she left her imprint on its investigative work, innovative website and growing forays into video.

Abramson can be a tough customer, but there is no room for shrinking violets at the top of major media organizations. Since she was an inside player who rarely appeared on television, I don’t think she got enough credit for some important work done by the Times—including some early critical reporting about ObamaCare.

Instead, she got trashed by unnamed sources, such as in a Politico piece last year that reported she had once “blown up in a meeting,” traveled a lot and once told an editor to leave a meeting and change a photo. Horrors!

As I wrote about this sexism-tinged piece at the time: “Find me a male executive who’d be trashed over such minor incidents. Newsrooms are by their nature a collection of chronic complainers. Alpha males are expected to act that way.”

Whatever Abramson’s strengths and weaknesses, she was the most important woman in print journalism. The fact that she’s been tossed out in the same week that Barbara Walters is leaving daily broadcasting after half a century removes two of the most groundbreaking female voices from what remains a male-dominated business.

The Politico piece was prescient in one respect, though, reporting an argument between Abramson and Baquet that ended with the managing editor slamming his hand against a wall and storming out of the newsroom.

Baquet is a popular figure in the newsroom. He was a Times reporter and editor and Pulitzer winner who left to become editor of the Los Angeles Times, resigning after deep budget cuts and returning to the Times in Abramson’s former job, Washington bureau chief.

At 57, Baquet was widely viewed as the heir apparent within a few years. So the publisher must have felt strongly to truncate that timetable as he did.

Sulzberger told his newsroom that the switch was not about journalism, the newsroom’s direction or its relationship with the business side.

“I chose to appoint a new leader for our newsroom because I believe that new leadership will improve some aspects of the management of the newsroom,” he said, according to the Times account. “You will understand that there is nothing more that I want to say about this. We had an issue with management in the newsroom. And that’s what’s at the heart of this issue.”

The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta provides some crucial context:

“Several weeks ago, I’m told, Abramson 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. Sulzberger is known to believe that the Times, as a financially beleaguered newspaper, needed to retreat on some of its generous pay and pension benefits; Abramson had also been at the Times for far fewer years than Keller, having spent much of her career at the Wall Street Journal, accounting for some of the pension disparity. Eileen Murphy, a spokeswoman for the Times, said that Jill Abramson’s total compensation as executive editor ‘was directly comparable to Bill Keller’s’—though it was not actually the same.”

If Abramson’s complaint has validity, though, it could reinforce the notion that she never quite penetrated the boys’ club.

The editor of the New York Times is a hugely important figure, presiding over a 1,200-person staff that, especially in this age of shrinking newspaper revenue in the United States, dwarfs any other. But in the end she has a constituency of one, and that is Arthur Sulzberger.

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