BOB GARFIELD On Wednesday, the New York Times announced the firing of Executive Editor Jill Abramson, who had held the post for only two and a half years, and replaced her with her deputy, Dean Baquet. The move was sudden but not necessarily surprising. Rumors had floated for months about dissatisfaction within the newsroom over Abramson’s supposed brusque management style, about conflict with Times CEO Mark Thompson over the business side’s encroachment in the newsroom and a fraught relationship between Abramson and Baquet, and speaking of fraught, a subtext of gender issues underlies the whole affair.
The New Yorker's Ken Auletta, an inveterate Times watcher, is well acquainted with all of the players and wrote about the dismissal Wednesday. Ken, welcome back to OTM.
KEN AULETTA: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: You know, this is kind of a nerd version of what happened between Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s sister in the elevator, a lot of speculation. Will we ever really know [LAUGHS] what, what prompted the confrontation?
KEN AULETTA: Well, I think we know essentially, and I think Jill Abramson and Arthur Sulzberger, the Times publisher, would agree that their relationship had turned sour and that he was unhappy, uncomfortable with her, she was increasingly uncomfortable, not just with him feeling that she didn’t have good chemistry, but she was also concerned, you know, at a time when newspapers are declining in circulation and revenue, increasingly the business side of all these newspapers are saying, what can we do differently to generate more money? And one of the things they came up with is something called native advertising, camouflaging an ad to make it look like a news story.
The business side is very in favor of that, but traditional news people, like Jill Abramson, are very much against that, so that created a, a barrier between Jill Abramson and the business side.
BOB GARFIELD: Well so there’s that, but there's also this underlying gender question. From the beginning of her tenure, she has been criticized for being short tempered and curt and confrontational with her staff, a complaint that never seemed to hurt the career of one of her predecessors, Abe Rosenthal, who was a tyrant in the newsroom. This has raised questions of a gender double standard. And that's not all. You wrote about her compensation.
KEN AULETTA: Yeah, she found out several weeks ago that she was paid less than her predecessor, Bill Keller, was, as executive editor. She was paid less when she was managing editor than her male predecessor was as managing editor. And she also found out that she was paid less than her fellow managing editor, John Geddes. So she raised that issue with, with both Arthur Sulzberger, the publisher, and Mark Thompson, the CEO of the company, and that didn’t make them very comfortable.
But then she hired a lawyer, and that made them even more uncomfortable because it kind of fit the narrative, increasingly growing in their mind, that she was difficult.
BOB GARFIELD: So maybe this was the confluence of dissatisfaction and events that triggered the move. I guess the ultimate question is, as far as the Times readership is concerned, does it make any difference?
KEN AULETTA: When people say that Jill Abramson was difficult, no one questions that she was a, a good editor and a really good journalist. Any editor is going to be unpopular when, when he or she tells their underlings, their reporters or writers, I don’t like your piece. You don’t have enough facts. You need more sources. That’s what an editor’s job is, to basically judge you and hold you to a higher standard. She did that with her, with her writers. And this is relevant to the reader because, in that sense, you want a tough editor.
One of the questions about Dean Baquet, her successor, will be is he going to be tough, is he going to make tough decisions. Another question about him, he is less attuned to the digital world than Jill Abramson was, so people are going to be looking at that question too.
BOB GARFIELD: In spite of the fact that Abramson was fired, everybody in charge took great care to be respectful, if circumspect, in turning over the reins to Baquet. But Baquet himself said something that struck me as very odd. He said, “A great leader can also be humane.” [LAUGHS] And I’m like – youch, did he just call Jill Abramson inhumane?
KEN AULETTA: I took the same meaning from that as you did. He was referring to John Carroll who had hired him initially to be the managing editor of the Los Angeles Times, and I think it was a shot at, at Jill. And it, it was also an announcement of the kind of editor that Dean Baquet plans to be.
I would challenge though your, your presumption in your question, which is that I don’t think this was handled well at all. I think – I think it was embarrassing. You have someone who was the first woman editor, who is a very esteemed journalist, who won eight Pulitzer Prizes for her team, and to summarily fire her in the kind of rough way they did, I thought that was really – bad form on the part of the Times and its publisher.
BOB GARFIELD: Ken, thank you so much.
KEN AULETTA: My pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD: Ken Auletta covers the media for The New Yorker.