It sure doesn’t look like Janet Robinson’s departure as CEO of the New York Times Co. was voluntary.Her “retirement” was sudden; even some senior company officials didn’t know about it until the last minute. No successor has been lined up; company chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. is taking the title on an interim basis.That strongly suggests she got a hard shove.And she’s not talking. No interviews, says a company spokesman. Neither is Sulzberger.So it’s not hard to conclude that certain powerful people in the Times hierarchy were dissatisfied with its financial performance and nudged Robinson out the door. Robinson herself admits to “mixed feelings”: “Obviously, the last few years have been tough,” she wrote her staff, as “we have navigated one of the most difficult periods in publishing history.”
Despite an 82 percent decline in the Times Co. stock price since Robinson took over in 2004, she is getting one sweet deal. Robinson will continue as a consultant for an astronomical $4.5 million a year.Insiders say there may not have been enough room at the top at a company that has deliberately downsized, now worth about $2.4 billion from an earlier peak of $3.5 billion. Since Sulzberger and his cousin, Vice Chairman Michael Golden, are part of the family the owns the Times, Robinson may have become the odd woman out.Advertising at Times Co. newspapers declined 7.3 percent in the third quarter. Still, Sulzberger heaped on the praise in his own memo: “With Janet’s vision and input, we were able to convince the then corporate management to make the investment necessary and began to reposition The Times as a truly national newspaper—one that now has 58% of weekday and 62% of Sunday subscribers located outside of the NY market.”Whatever the setbacks of Robinson’s tenure, the question has to be asked: compared to what?“I’m most impressed by what she didn’t do—lay off hundreds of journalists, close bureaus in this country and abroad,” says industry analyst John Morton. “That was a smart way to handle a downturn in business. The paper has maintained its journalistic quality in every respect compared to what’s happening at other properties, where it’s not unusual to see the number of journalists reduced by half. I give her full credit for the way she ran the company during a very difficult time.”It’s been a grim season for the newspaper business. Russ Stanton stepped down as editor of the Los Angeles Times this week, becoming the fourth editor to quit amid mounting budget cuts, with word that more are on the way. The L.A. Times newsroom shrunk from 900 to 550 during his four years; the New York Times, despite scattered layoffs, still employs more than 1,200 journalists.Media General this week said it would lay off 165 people, or 16 percent of the staff, at the Tampa Tribune and its community newspapers.On the plus side for the New York Times, the paper recently adopted a partial paywall without driving away hordes of online readers, a move that other papers are now studying. And the company said last summer it would repay a $250 million loan from Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim earlier than expected.None of that was enough to save Janet Robinson’s job. But then, she’ll be well taken care of in her multimillion-dollar consultant’s role.