As Jill Abramson’s firing from The New York Times becomes a tabloid-ready melodrama—“AN-GREY LADY!” screamed the cover of Friday’s New York Post, complete with a photo (Instagrammed by her daughter) of the tank-topped ex- executive editor brandishing boxing gloves—an old saying comes to mind:
When they tell you it’s not about the money, it’s about the money.
In Abramson’s case, it’s about the money and a lawyer. It’s also about being, to put it politely, less than forthcoming with Dean Baquet, her deputy and now successor, regarding her plan to hire Guardian journalist Janine Gibson to be Baquet’s co-managing editor in charge of digital journalism.
In an email—dated April 28—obtained by The Daily Beast, The New York Times’s CEO, Mark Thompson, who with Abramson was instrumental in courting Gibson, wrote of encouraging the editor-in-chief of Guardian U.S. to join the Times with the promise of an even more exalted job to come, possibly including the editorship of the Times.
“I made the case that if she comes here, she will be, if anything, even more attractive as a candidate to them for that [top editorship of The Guardian]—and it also opens up the possibility of an executive editorship here or elsewhere in this country,” Thompson wrote to Abramson, reporting on what he described as a 40-minute phone call. Presumably Gibson, who is 41, would have had to wait her turn, after Baquet, who would have been 62 when Abramson reached 65, the mandatory Times retirement age for the executive editor’s job.
Ironically, Thompson also included the following in his email to Abramson: “She reveres you and will need convincing that you’re going to sign up for some more years as Editor. I told her I was doing my best to persuade you that you should!”
Baquet, 57, was understandably irked—“batshit,” in the words of one insider—when he learned that Abramson hoped to recruit Gibson, to become Baquet’s equal on the Times masthead. In a private dinner with Times publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. in early May, he vigorously complained about being blindsided by the recruiting effort.
Baquet had been aware that Abramson, Sulzberger, and Times Co. chief executive Mark Thompson had been courting Gibson—and Baquet even had lunch with her—but he didn’t know the job offer came with the managing editor title. Ultimately, Gibson has decided to return to London, and will take on the role of editor-in-chief of the Guardian’s website.
I’m told that the same day Thompson sent his email, a mere two weeks before Sulzberger pulled the trigger, the publisher learned that his top editor had hired a labor and compensation attorney to investigate what she believed was an unfair disparity between her compensation and the money awarded to her male peers.
For Sulzberger, whose aristocratic family forebears fostered a WASPy corporate culture in which talk of filthy lucre was considered indecorous, a confrontation over money was bad enough.
But it must have been galling that the woman he had elevated to the most influential perch in journalism, in whom he had placed all of his trust as the steward of the sacred Times brand, would engage the adversarial services of a lawyer, with the implicit threat of litigation.
That just isn’t the way things are done at The Times—at least not among Sulzberger’s crowd.
According to Ken Auletta, the New Yorker’s supremely well-sourced media correspondent, Abramson’s attorney discovered an alleged pattern in which his client was consistently paid less than her male counterparts in comparable jobs: a starting salary of $475,000 as executive editor compared to her predecessor Bill Keller’s last-year salary of $559,000; Abramson’s managing-editor salary of $398,000, exceeded by that of her male co-managing editor, John Geddes, who ran news administration. Auletta reported that Abramson complained after her salary was raised to $503,000, and she was ultimately bumped up to $525,000.
Sulzberger—who had vowed on Wednesday, while announcing Abramson’s defenestration, that he would have nothing more to say on the subject—ended up the next day in what amounted to a public knife fight over Abramson’s compensation, and whether the sinister hand of the patriarchy was somehow involved.
The publisher—who is also chairman of The New York Times Co.—was compelled to point out in a staff memo that in 2013 Abramson earned 10 percent more than Keller did in his final year as executive editor, and indeed had made more than Keller did in every year of his 8-year tenure. Sulzberger’s calculations included executive bonuses awarded to each editor, including awards of Times stock.
In a highly unusual move, Sulzberger even found himself talking publicly about his problems with Abramson’s management style—the Baquet/Gibson imbroglio being a perfect example—and even discussed his last formal evaluation of her, which raised her alleged deficiencies as an executive.
Message: While there are legitimate concerns about disparities in how men and women are compensated, Jill Abramson is hardly an exemplar of those concerns. Abramson was wearing boxing gloves in the photo, but Sulzberger’s gloves were off.
(As a side note, it is illuminating regarding the Times corporate culture that the newspaper’s top editor is paid a fraction of what such glossy magazine editors as Graydon Carter and Anna Wintour are said to earn, well into seven figures, for jobs that are arguably less overwhelming; indeed, when he was running the New York Daily News, Martin Dunn was reported to have made $1.2 million a year.)
All the unpleasantness came to a head last Friday, when I’m told Sulzberger asked Abramson to “retire”—an interesting formulation for a 60-year-old woman who is famously a workhorse and hoped to continue in her job. As she told me last summer, “In terms of my professional life, I always felt a little happy that my husband [Henry Griggs] and I never had much money. I never had to go through the should-I-stay-at-home conversation. I also wanted to work, because I really liked it.” She added: “They’re gonna have to take me out feet first, or chop off my head.”
Abramson predictably refused Sulzberger’s request, and here we are.
Mark Thompson’s April 28th Email to Jill Abramson in Full
From: Thompson, MarkDate: April 28, 2014 at 1:52:37 PM EDTTo: Jill AbramsonSubject: Re: Can you call Janine
40 mins on phone to Janine. She’s clearly very intrigued but anxious too. The Guardian’s culturally like a mini-Times, many people spend their entire careers there and being tapped for the No 2 slot would be seen by many as a signal that she will be the next Editor. I made the case that if she comes here, she will be, if anything, even more attractive as a candidate to them for that—and it also opens up the possibility of an executive editorship here or elsewhere in this country. Is there room for another Brit? What would it be like coming into the newsroom as an outsider? I said that, though it would no doubt get written up, she shouldn’t worry about the first. The second is more real (Man Ed is quite an entry-level job at the Times), but that her reputation post-Snowden and the support she would have from you (and the rest of us) would carry her through. Can you get new digital stuff done at the Times? I told her there really was a new spirit in the newsroom and she buys that and has been impressed by what’s been achieved recently. She reveres you and will need convincing that you’re going to sign up for some more years as Editor. I told her I was doing my best to persuade you that you should! The family case for staying in NY seems very strong. And she knows that the Times is unique. I’ll see her again when she’s in next week. M