Monday, May 19, 2014

Jill Abramson's Firing

For 10 days now, journalists inside the New York Times and their friends have been discussing, obsessively, the public firing of Jill Abramson, the paper's executive editor.  After reading and listening to reports about the situation, I offer my thoughts.

1.  Being a change agent is risky.

Jill Abramson

Abramson apparently got in trouble because she wanted to bring in a new digital editor at the same staff level as her second in command, Managing Editor Dean Baquet.  Baquet went over her head to the Times' squishy and pliable publisher/chairman, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., and told him, in effect, to choose between the two of them.  Sulzberger chose Baquet.

Natalie Nougayrede

A few days later, in Paris, the editor of Le Monde (the French equivalent of the Times) was pushed out after a number of top editors resigned over her plans to refocus on the paper's digital product.  The editor, Natalie Nougayrede, had been in her job less than a year.

Before taking her job less than three years ago, Abramson spent six months learning about and evaluating the Times digital efforts.  She, like Nougayrede, realized that change, big change, is the only path to survival for traditional newspapers.

Change is not easy in bureaucracies like big newspapers. People are political; they guard their turf.  When they feel threatened, the knives come out.

2.  Is the New York Times biased against women?  Probably yes.

Why else would the Times' own stories about Abramson's firing discuss seriously whether she was a bitch and a bossy woman?  Why would the publisher go out of his way to make such a public spectacle of his decision to fire her?

Before she became executive editor, Abramson was the paper's managing editor for eight years.  Before that, she was chief of the powerful D.C. bureau.

If Abramson was hell on wheels, as we now hear her described, it must have been apparent many years ago.  Leopards, spots.  Why did she keep getting promotions if Sulzberger didn't like her management style?

It has been more than 25 years since the Times was sued by 550 women employees over unequal pay, assignments and promotions.  In 1978, the newspaper settled with a payment of $350,000 and a promise to set up an affirmative action plan.

The equal-pay thing apparently hadn't been worked out by the time Abramson began moving up the ranks, however.  Not surprisingly, she was dismayed to learn that she was being paid about as much as men several editorial levels below her.

Here's another thing.  The last newspaper where I worked was a good one.  By my count, seven of my colleagues were hired away by the Times.  All were men. An eighth, a woman, joined the paper several years later, after publication of her second well-received book.  Maybe the male/female ratio was a coincidence, or maybe all the really good journalists were men.  Who knows?

(This is not sour grapes on my part, by the way. I never sought work at the Times, and I left my own job, happily, for graduate school.)

There of course are talented women at the Times.  But several were quoted, anonymously, this week as saying they believed their long-term prospects at the paper were limited.

In some cases, women who left the paper have seen their careers take off after they have gone elsewhere.  Texas columnist Molly Ivins was one notable example.

3.  Are all newspapers biased against women?  Probably no.

When Abramson was made executive editor in New York in 2011, the huzzahs were deafening.  It was as if she had cracked the glass ceiling for newswomen everywhere for the first time ever.  In fact, the significance was mostly at one New York paper.

Here are a few women who took top jobs at newspapers -- and held them for many years -- long before Abramson's brief tenure:

Sandra Mims Rowe, editor of the Portland Oregonian, 1993-2010.  During this period, the paper
      won five Pulitzers, pretty good for a regional daily with a far smaller staff than the Times.

Geneva Overholser, editor of the Des Moines Register, 1989-1997.

Julia Wallace, editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 2002-2010; now overseeing 12
       newspapers, three radio stations and other digital media for Cox Media Group.

Amanda Bennett, editor of the Lexington Herald-Leader, 2001-2003; editor of the Philadelphia                     Inquirer, 2003 to 2006; executive editor at Bloomberg News, 2006-2013.

Janet Chusmir, executive editor of the Miami Herald, 1987-1990 (when she died suddenly at
       the age of 60).

Tonnie Katz, editor of the Orange County Register, 1992-2002.

There are many other examples, including the Gannett newspaper chain's hiring and promoting many female editors and publishers starting in the early 1980s.

You get the idea.

4.  It's a tempest in a teapot.

I read several newspapers daily, including the Times.   It does some excellent work, but I get the impression sometimes that its reporters and editors talk mostly to each other and that coverage is aimed at their own in-group's interests.

The nonstop conversations about Abramson's firing are an example of this.

Most of us understand that getting out and listening to other people is a good idea.  Maybe, with time, the people at the Times will figure this out.

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