Tuesday, July 29, 2014

There's a simple explanation for Abramson's ouster that the Times can't give

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One reason gender and pay issues have so dominated the conversation over Jill Abramson's ouster is that there's a vacuum to fill. As of yet, there is no obvious performance-based explanation for her ouster. The New York Times was doing tremendous work under her leadership. They were winning prizes. They were improving the web site. They had just launched a widely admired new vertical in The Upshot. They were, shockingly, profitable. That's an unusual context in which to fire the top editor.

Arthur Sulzberger Jr.'s statement on Abramson's firing is, by far, the fullest explanation yet. But it raises at least as many questions as it answers. This paragraph, for instance, contains some pretty severe charges:

During her tenure, I heard repeatedly from her newsroom colleagues, women and men, about a series of issues, including arbitrary decision-making, a failure to consult and bring colleagues with her, inadequate communication and the public mistreatment of colleagues. I discussed these issues with Jill herself several times and warned her that, unless they were addressed, she risked losing the trust of both masthead and newsroom. She acknowledged that there were issues and agreed to try to overcome them. We all wanted her to succeed. It became clear, however, that the gap was too big to bridge and ultimately I concluded that she had lost the support of her masthead colleagues and could not win it back.

None of these charges are substantiated, which makes sense given that Abramson and the Times appear to have signed a non-disclosure agreement around the circumstances of her firing. But the Times is a very, very big newsroom full of people who know exactly how to get their side of a story out. If Abramson had been publicly mistreating colleagues, for instance, it's likely that that charge would be substantiated whether the Times wanted to release the information or not. If she had been making dangerously arbitrary decisions that imperiled the institution, it wouldn't have stayed private for long. But aside from a few anonymous (and pretty banal) anecdotes in a 2013 Politico story, there's nothing to point to. A few weeks before Abramson was fired, Mark Thompson, the CEO of the New York Times, was telling Abramson he wanted her to remain editor for many more years.

The overwhelming reaction to Abramson's ouster within the Times was shock — and, now, confusion. That's telling: if Abramson had been such a nightmare requiring such constant management from Sulzberger it seems likely that more Times employees would have seen the writing on the wall. Similarly, the public response from Times journalists weighing in on Abramson's ouster seems to be sadness rather than relief:

It's possible, of course, that Abramson's allies are being vocal — both on and off the record — while her detractors are a silent majority. That's the view of Ravi Somaiya, a Times media reporter:

That may well be right (more from Somaiya here). But given that Sulzberger feels besieged enough to make an angry public statement on this it's hard to believe Abramson's critics wouldn't be leaking a bit of their narrative if they were indeed so numerous. And it still doesn't explain why the move so stunned a newsroom that Abramson had supposedly alienated so totally, and that had apparently been complaining to Sulzberger so frequently.

Behind all this lurks a very simple explanation from Abramson's ouster: the New York Times is a family-owned business and Abramson didn't get along with the patriarch. The problem is that's not an explanation Sulzberger can offer, even if it's the true one — and, in a family-owned business, a perfectly reasonable one. The Sulzbergers have been extraordinary stewards of the Times. But they know full well that neither the Times' employees nor its readers want to remember that the paper is ultimately subject to the whims, wants and preferences of the family that owns it — at least not at a moment like this, when that family appears to have stumbled in managing such an important transition.

If there's a bright side of all this for the Times, it's that the incoming editor, Dean Baquet, is beloved in the newsroom. For all the controversy over firing Abramson there's been virtually no dissension over the idea that if the Times isn't going to be led by Abramson it should be led by Baquet. It's a shame that he'll take over under such controversial conditions, but there's little reason to worry for the future of the Times.

Disclosure: I am married to New York Times economic policy reporter Annie Lowrey.

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