Lessons from the firing of an editor

by Paul Henson

Posted at May 20 2014 09:05 PM | Updated as of May 21 2014 11:50 PM

Jill Abramson, former Executive Editor of the New York Times, gives the commencement address at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. Photo by Jason Miczek, Reuters

On Monday, May 19th, Jill Abramson, top news editor, stood before the graduating class of Wake Forest University in North Carolina to deliver the commencement speech. It would have been an ordinary event, yet it became a minor media circus.

Less than a week prior to her speech, Abramson was fired as executive editor of one of the most influential news publications in the world, The New York Times. She was replaced by her number two man, managing editor Dean Baquet.

The Times very own journalists David Carr and Ravi Somaiya reported that the entire newsroom was “stunned” by the ouster, as announced by publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger, Jr. in a hastily-assembled general meeting on the afternoon of May 14th. “It is one thing to gossip or complain about your boss, but quite another to watch her head get chopped off in the cold light of day. The lack of decorum was stunning,” Carr wrote in a subsequent article.

Abramson, 60, was the first woman to ever hold the highest-ranking editorial post at The Times. She helped supervise the coverage of two wars, four national elections, hurricanes and oil spills. She led the expansion to new platforms on digital and mobile. The Times won eight Pulitzer Prizes under her.

So why fire her? In many organizations all over the world, there are many leaders who have far less accomplishments (or none at all), and yet their heads are nowhere near the chopping block.

Several speculations surfaced from Abramson’s personality (she has been described as “brusque”, “polarizing”, “mercurial”); to issues of gender bias. Ken Auletta of The New Yorker wrote in an article that sources said Abramson discovered that her pay and pension benefits were less than that of her male predecessor (The Times denied this.)

Sulzberger gave the following official explanation of Abramson’s firing: “an issue with management in the newsroom,” “she had lost the support of her masthead colleagues and could not win it back,” “[Abramson is guilty of] arbitrary decision-making, a failure to consult and bring colleagues with her, inadequate communication and the public mistreatment of colleagues.”

There are reports of tensions between Abramson and Baquet. Abramson was reportedly planning to hire Janine Gibson of The Guardian to become Baquet’s co-managing editor for digital. Carr wrote that Baquet was “furious and worried about how it would affect not only him but the rest of the news operations” and so Baquet supposedly told the publisher he will leave the paper.

Managing Editor Dean Baquet, handout photo provided by The New York Times to Reuters

That Baquet is the man standing and now holds the top post may give an indication as to how he is regarded. The first African-American to hold the plum position, Carr describes Baquet as “courageous and smart, and he makes newspapering seem like a grand endeavour” and has the makings of a “great leader.”

The makings of a leader

I briefly witnessed Baquet at work last year during my fellowship with the World Press Institute (WPI). The WPI fellows attended the morning page one meeting presided by Baquet, with all the top editors in attendance. It was a formidable room. He seemed very collegial, allowing the editors free rein to develop stories with their reporters. But when time came to make choices for the front page, he was very decisive and sure of what he wanted.

After the editorial meeting, he engaged the WPI fellows in a casual chat for a few minutes. He spoke about how the mobile and digital platforms have changed the media landscape. He seemed keenly aware not just of the editorial side but also the business challenges in news, at a time when print circulation and revenues are diminishing.

How do you get readers to pay for online content? What can you offer that is worth paying for? Who is more important – the consumer or advertiser? Can all media outlets put up a pay wall on their websites? Who is your market? What other online revenue sources can you tap? Baquet touched on these things.

Uphill battles

Indeed, improving business-newsroom relations and digital/mobile innovations may be Baquet’s biggest uphill battles. Auletta wrote that Abramson had clashed with The Times CEO Mark Thompson over the “perceived intrusion of the business side into the newsroom.”

And recently, Nieman Journalism Lab wrote a piece on a supposed New York Times innovation report. The report is a self-examination on how The Times is performing on the digital platform.

The Times is undoubtedly known for some of the best online work in the world (check out its Snowfall multimedia project), but the report was critical of where The Times was doing poorly: social media promotion, reader interface and engagement, providing and packaging more in-demand content, creating tools for its writers, integrating research and development with newsroom operations, pushing staff to do away with traditional newspaper practices and adapt to the changing times, among others.

(Ironically, in an interview with Ken Auletta, Abramson said that one of the biggest changes at The Times under her was innovation in the digital platform by enhancing narrative with video and motion graphics, among others.)

Evidently, there is no escaping politics in any organization in the world, but set aside the struggle of relationships, the real battle is taking place in the digital and mobile sphere. Those who can adapt, innovate and earn amid these changing times are the ones to survive and thrive. As to what’s next for Abramson, she says she’s in the same boat of uncertainty as the new graduates she addressed which, she says, makes for a frightening, yet exciting time.

“I’m talking to anyone who has been dumped — have not gotten the job you really wanted or have received those horrible rejection letters from grad school… You know the disappointment of losing, or not getting something you badly want. When that happens, show what you are made of,” Abramson said.

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