WHY?

05.14.14

Jill Abramson Fired from the Times: Was It About Money and Sexism—Or Management Style?

On Wednesday, Jill Abramson was suddenly ousted from the editorship of The New York Times. Rumors swirl that pay equity or her management style are to blame. As yet, she’s not saying.

On Tuesday, Jill Abramson was executive editor of The New York Times, 33 months into her tenure as the first woman to run the Times newsroom in the paper’s 161-year history.

Less than a day later, Abramson, 60, is no longer even an employee of the Times, having been fired with little warning by Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. for reasons he vaguely described as an effort to “improve some aspects of the management of the newsroom.”

In remarks at the Times’s Midtown Manhattan headquarters to hundreds of shocked editors, reporters and other employees, including Times Co. chief executive Mark Thompson—but not Abramson—Sulzberger named managing editor Dean Baquet, 57, as her successor, effective immediately.

Baquet’s appointment is at least as historic as Abramson’s was: He is the first African American to serve as top editor of the nation’s most influential news outlet.

“The mood overall seemed like shock, really. I think we were all kind of blindsided,” said a Times insider who attended Sulzberger’s surprise announcement, adding that people inside the paper were asking the same questions as those outside: Why? and Why now?

Abramson—who didn’t return a phone call seeking comment--clearly intended to hold the job for another five years, until she reached the mandatory retirement age of 65. “They’re gonna have to take me out feet first,” she told this reporter for a Newsweek magazine profile, “or chop off my head.”

It seems the latter has occurred. Thus a corporate guillotine ended a stellar career at the Times, which Abramson joined in 1997, serving as Washington bureau chief and managing editor after two decades at such publications as Time magazine, The American Lawyer, and The Wall Street Journal.

Apparently Abramson had no reason to believe her job was in jeopardy until this past weekend, when Sulzberger began talking to her about making a change.

Only nine months ago, Sulzberger invited Newsweek to breakfast with chief executive Thompson in order to show conspicuous support for Abramson, who had been the subject of a negative story in Politico that asserted that her editorship was already a failure, and that her abrasive manner had alienated so many Times employees that she was “on the verge of losing the support of the newsroom.”

Insisting that Abramson was an editor who “has got leadership” in her portfolio of talents, Sulzberger declared then: “Let’s agree that all of us are human, and all of us have our faults and our flaws. And when you’re looking for someone to be a leader, one of the things you’re looking for is self-awareness. Not to suggest you’re looking for perfection, because you’re not going to find that, but for someone who says, ‘Well, yeah, I can be that way; I’m focused on it; I recognize it.’ ”

“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.”

Sulzberger--who is chairman of The New York Times Co. and who, with members of his family, controls the public company through a special class of voting shares—claimed Abramson possessed the necessary self-awareness. Whether her leadership style was a factor in her dismissal was unclear Wednesday. But Ken Auletta, The New Yorker’s well-sourced media correspondent, offered an additional reason in a blog on Wednesday: money.

According to Auletta, Abramson recently pressed Sulzberger for a more generous compensation package on discovering that her pay and pension benefits fell far short of those awarded to her male predecessor, Bill Keller. For Sulzberger, whose newspaper has suffered from the same financial stresses as the journalism business as a whole, Abramson’s request was apparently too much to bear.

While one of Auletta’s sources claimed Abramson’s pay was ultimately adjusted to Keller’s level, she also learned, Auletta wrote, quoting one of Abramson’s associates, “‘that a former deputy managing editor’—a man—‘made more money than she did’ while she was managing editor. She had a lawyer make polite inquiries about the pay and pension disparities, which set them off”—“them” meaning Sulzberger and Thompson, a British media executive who arrived at The Times Co. 18 months ago from his perch running the BBC.

On Wednesday, Thompson, who oversees the business of the company while Abramson was in charge of the journalism, dismissed rumors of tension between himself and Abramson—who was known to be wary of Thompson’s and Sulzberger’s efforts to integrate business-side employees into the operations of the newsroom. He issued a statement calling her “a brilliant and supportive partner to me.”

In his speech to the newsroom, Sulzberger was at pains to throw cold water on various rumors and theories that began circulating as soon as Abramson’s sacking was announced.

“[T]his is not about any disagreement over the direction of our digital future or any of the steps we have taken recently to create and launch new digital products and services,” he said, according to a transcript provided by a Times spokeswoman. “Jill and I agreed fundamentally about the need to embrace new platforms and new expressions of our journalism…”

Sulzberger continued: “This is also not about any sort of disagreement between the newsroom and the business side over the critical principle of an independent newsroom. While we are all working more collaboratively, there is no one in the leadership of this Company--from me and Mark on down--who disagrees with the idea that our newsroom must remain independent with editorial decisions resting with the executive editor.

“Rather, I choose to appoint a new leader for our newsroom because I believe that new leadership will improve some aspects of the management of the newsroom.” Sulzberger added that, “There is nothing more I am going to say about this.”

As is traditional at times like this, Abramson issued her own statement that attempted to put a brave face on what personally must be a devastating development: “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.”

And Sulzberger showered his fired editor with praise, citing her “outstanding job in preserving and extending the level of excellence of our news report…She’s an accomplished journalist who contributed mightily to our reputation as the world’s most important news provider.”

He quickly changed the subject to Baquet. “A nicer guy, you will not find, but that isn’t what brought him to this point,” Sulzberger said, mentioning his “passion for journalism, investigative and otherwise; a fierce loyalty to the editors and reporters he leads; and a competitive spirit that inspires all around him to do better.”

When it was his turn to speak, Baquet said: “There are too many people for me to thank for this 40-year career, too many people who helped support a young black southerner whose parents had only grade-school educations and who became addicted to newspapers through the daily accounts of the ups and downs—mostly downs—of the fledgling New Orleans Saints.”

He thanked Sulzberger, whom he called “a great publisher who understands we are more than a business and who values an independent-minded editor with a history of pushing back.” And he went out of his way to praise Abramson. “I owe Jill Abramson a tremendous amount,” Baquet said. “She made me her partner for three years and taught me the value of great ambition and what she always called the great backstory. I will miss her. She made the paper better, which is the greatest testament one can pay to any editor.”

The usually even-tempered, affable Baquet was the central character of the juiciest anecdote in the negative April 2013 Politico story, which Abramson later admitted caused her to cry. The account had Abramson summoning Baquet to her office to complain that the paper’s recent news coverage wasn’t “buzzy” enough. They engaged in a heated argument, which Baquet ended by bursting out of her office, slamming his hand into a wall and storming out of the newsroom.

It was, to say the least, an unexpected occurrence. During a leisurely lunch with Abramson and Baquet several months before the incident, they displayed no tension or awkwardness; indeed, they seemed to be friends and allies, enjoying each other’s company. But in retrospect, Baquet’s defense of Abramson to Politico hardly seems resounding. “I think there’s a really easy caricature…of the bitchy woman character and the guy who is sort of calmer,” he said at the time, while confirming the incident. “That, I think, is a little bit of an unfair caricature.” A report in The New York Times said Baquet was angered in recent weeks by attempts by Abramson to hire the out-going editor of The Guardian’s U.S. operation, Janine Gibson, and install her alongside Mr. Baquet in a co-managing editor position without consulting him.

The Times’s new executive editor is the second-youngest of five boys who grew up in the family’s restaurant business in New Orleans, according to a New York magazine bio. Baquet attended Columbia University and won a summer internship at New Orleans’s now-defunct afternoon paper, the States-Item—and loved daily journalism so much that he dropped out of college to practice it fulltime. “Journalism was just an accident,” he said years later. “It just happened and I fell in love with it.”

His distinguished career—including sharing a Pulitzer Prize at the Chicago Tribune for exposing corruption on the city council—eventually landed him at the Times as an investigative reporter, and subsequently an editor for the metro section, then the national section. Despite his rapid rise at the Times, which portended big things, Baquet was lured to the position of managing editor at the Los Angeles Times. He ultimately was named executive editor.

In 2006, he left LA with a flourish when the Tribune Co. demanded severe cuts in the newsroom and Baquet refused to make them. By 2007, he had rejoined the New York Times as Washington bureau chief, and by 2011 he was Abramson’s No. 2.

On Wednesday Baquet tried to reassure his traumatized newsroom: “Let’s take risks, and not beat each other up when we fail. Let’s work together, but not get paralyzed by guessing what Dean or anyone else wants. Give it a shot. We will commit big ambitious journalism every day. And we will have an absolute utter unadulterated blast while doing it.”