Who is Jill Abramson?
Abramson was the first woman executive editor of the New York Times — the pinnacle of a distinguished career in journalism that has spanned nearly four decades. She became executive editor in 2011, a position that put her in charge of the newsroom and the paper's content. That was seen as a landmark in an industry where mastheads are dominated by men, and particularly at a prominent newspaper that had not been headed by a woman in 160 years of existence.
Abramson was fired from her position as executive editor on May 14, 2014, a move that came as a surprise to her colleagues and became a top national news story.
To anyone outside the media bubble, it might be a mystery why Abramson's firing would matter that much. But her relatively short tenure, the New York Times' lofty status, an ensuing PR war, and concerns that gender somehow played a role in the debacle all created a media firestorm.
Why was the Abramson firing such a big deal?
One reason is simply that it happened at the New York Times, a huge, widely respected (even venerated) American news outlet. Another is that it was a total surprise to most people involved — the Times itself reported that the announcement of her firing was to a "stunned" newsroom. Abramson had only been in the position of executive editor for less than three years. Her predecessor, Bill Keller, served as executive editor for more than eight years.
Additionally, there seemed to be no immediate cause; she had not led the paper into financial ruin (quite the opposite); she had brought hundreds of thousands of subscribers through the Times' paywall and helped it undertake large-scale interactive digital features like "Snow Fall"; and she maintained the paper's excellence, with Times staffers earning eight Pulitzers during her tenure.
But perhaps the biggest reason the Abramson story has gained so much traction is that it quickly became a story about gender. This is in part because Abramson was a rare specimen: a woman at the helm of a major media organization, and the first woman executive editor at the Times. Indeed, though women have led several major news outlets in recent years, Abramson's firing leaves none of the 10 most-read newspapers in the US with a woman at the helm, according to Media Matters for America.
In addition, it's because so many elements of the story of her firing — her constant portrayal as difficult and pushy, stories that she saw her pay as unfair, the fact she was fired for her management style — hit major flashpoints in the national conversation about women in the workplace.
In recent years, prominent women have brought issues like the tendency to characterize women as "bossy" (Sheryl Sandberg), pay equity and pay secrecy (Lilly Ledbetter), and the glass cliff (GM CEO Mary Barra, among others) into the spotlight. What was striking about the Abramson narrative was that it seemed to sit so squarely at the intersection of those narratives.
On top of all that, this was a media story, and media outlets love covering high-profile media stories. That creates a feedback loop of sorts, like holding a microphone up to a speaker (which as everyone knows leads to lots of loud squealing).
Did any specific incident precipitate Jill Abramson's firing?
When it comes down to it, Jill Abramson was fired because Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., the paper's publisher, decided she had to go. That's because this is his family's business, and as the family patriarch, it was his call.
As for what specifically made him decide to let her go, two anecdotes in particular surfaced about what exactly was the proverbial "final straw" in the Abramson firing:
- Conflict with Dean Baquet. Abramson had clashed with her direct report, managing editor Dean Baquet, prior to her ouster, as the Times reports. However, one recent incident in particular upset Baquet: Abramson had sought to hire a new co-managing editor, Janine Gibson from London's Guardian, and have her work alongside Baquet. Baquet was angry because he said Abramson made this decision without consulting him, and he complained to Sulzberger. Not only that, but CEO Mark Thompson and Sulzberger felt Abramson misled them into believing that she had consulted with Baquet. As Sulzberger told Vanity Fair in a May 20 interview, Baquet said he had felt blindsided by the Gibson hiring plan, and that as a result the paper "risked losing Dean" and other top talent.
- Asking for more pay. One other story says Abramson was upset about her pay. Auletta reported the day after Abramson's firing that Abramson's starting salary as executive editor was $475,000, $84,000 less than her predecessor, Bill Keller's, final salary in the position. "Her salary was raised to $503,000, and — only after she protested — was raised again to $525,000," Auletta writes. Just weeks before her firing, Abramson brought in a lawyer to complain about her pay, and Auletta characterizes this as one of the events that helped lead to her firing. However, unlike with the above Baquet anecdote, Sulzberger has since denied that this one is true. He denies Abramson was paid unfairly, saying Abramson's total compensation was 10 percent higher when she was fired than Keller's had been when he had left.
Whether or not both factors in fact contributed to the firing, it remains true that it was ultimately Sulzberger's prerogative to put in place whoever he wanted. And when it came down to what he saw as a choice between Abramson and Baquet, Sulzberger saw Baquet as more indispensable. As Sulzberger said newsroom staffers told him, "The one person we cannot lose is Dean Baquet."
Who is Dean Baquet?
Dean Baquet, who was managing editor under Abramson, became the new executive editor of the New York Times. Prior to joining the New York Times, he was the top editor at the Los Angeles Times, a position he was fired from after he refused to make newsroom cuts. Baquet won a Pulitzer for investigative reporting in 1988, when he was at the Chicago Tribune.
Like Abramson, who was the first woman executive editor at the Times, Baquet's hiring as executive editor is a milestone for the Times, as he is the first African-American in charge of the paper.
Baquet told the Times that he will make a point of being present for his colleagues as executive editor.
"I will listen hard, I will be hands-on, I will be engaged. I'll walk the room," he said in one Times article. "That's the only way I know how to edit."
Times media reporter David Carr wrote of him glowingly in the wake of Abramson's firing: "[A]lmost anybody at The Times will tell you that Dean will make a great leader. He is courageous and smart, and he makes newspapering seem like a grand endeavor."
Still, the story behind the Abramson split has displayed Baquet's pricklier side: in one incident depicted in a 2013 Politico article, Baquet stormed out of Abramson's office after one spat, slammed his hand against a wall, and left for the day.
Was Jill Abramson a good executive editor?
When it comes to cold, hard data, Abramson appears to have been doing a fine job leading the Times. She helped the paper turn an operating profit nearly every quarter she was in charge, and in every quarter of 2013, those profits had increased from the prior year (though they fell off slightly in the first quarter of 2014). She saw the Times' paid digital-only subscribership tick up close to 800,000. And the Times won eight Pulitzers on her watch.
So by those numbers, she looks more than competent. And no one has disputed that she is one hell of a journalist.
But then, other factors were at work. One is that the Times was nervously looking over its shoulder at digital competitors. In a March report about the paper's digital strategy, a committee led by reporter A. G. Sulzberger (the publisher's son, incidentally) found that the paper was focusing too much on "Page One" and not enough on web content.
Also, it has been widely reported that Abramson was difficult to work with. Those reports have come from both the Times itself and numerous articles about Abramson from other outlets, many of which were written well before her firing.
Times reporter David Carr, for example, reported that men and women alike in the newsroom had stopped supporting Abramson. And in other outlets, several articles have described her as a tough, even disagreeable boss.
It is these sorts of statements that helped cast Abramson's time at the Times in a gendered light well before she was fired; indeed, some of the assertions in one 2013 Politico piece were widely attacked as sexist.
A common criticism is that it's easy to see how these same traits might be recast more positively in a male manager. "You don't have to pronounce judgment on the merits of Abramson's tenure to be dismayed by the awful sameness of the charges that are hurled by those anonymous newsroom sources," wrote Susan Glasser at Politico Magazine. "The women are always labeled smart but difficult, unapproachable and intimidating. It is always, of course, mind you, not a question of their journalistic merits but of their suitability, their personality."
Abramson also had her supporters. For example, as Slate reported, young women at the Times saw Abramson as an inspiration and were touched that she took the time to mentor them.
When it comes to this aspect of Abramson's tenure, there seem to be three possibilities: one is that Abramson was truly a fantastically difficult executive editor. Two is that the criticisms are too harsh — that she was being every bit as tough and demanding as many other, male editors would have been, and that people expecting otherwise were rudely awakened and complained to Sulzberger. Three is that she fell somewhere in the middle. And if that's true, the question indirectly raised by Glasser's point is whether those complaints meant she had to go, as "management issues" were the reason Sulzberger cited in Abramson's firing.
How did the Time's digital innovation report factor into Abramson's firing?
Short answer: it's uncertain, and it will probably remain uncertain.
Long version, for those who aren't attuned to the ins and outs of internal Times strategy: In the wake of Abramson's firing, Buzzfeed published an internal March report from the Times, criticizing how the paper was handling its transition into a more fully digital news organization.
That report, summarized here, was about how the Times should handle growing its audience and competing with "disruptive" competitors like Business Insider, Vox, and Buzzfeed itself. The report casts those competitors as "initially inferior to existing products" but as being lower-cost and possessing "enabling technology" that could help them eventually move past the Times.
Among the other critiques within the report is that the Times was focusing too much on "Page One" — the front page of the physical newspaper — and day-to-day news cycles and not enough about broader strategies to get new readership.
This report doesn't sound much like a proximate cause of Abramson's firing — it's not mentioned in many accounts of the firing — but it does make the Times sound skittish about its digital transition and ready for change. So while it doesn't seem to have been the spark that led to the Abramson fiasco, it may have added some small fuel to the fire.
What was the mood like inside the Times after the firing?
It's tough to really know from the outside, but Times media reporters David Carr and Ravi Somaiya provided some insights. Together, they wrote shortly after the firing that the staff was surprised by the "abrupt change of leadership." However, they also both have reported that some staffers took issue with Abramson's leadership style.
Carr, for example, investigated Sulzberger's claim that because she was a disagreeable manager, Abramson "had lost the respect of many of her masthead colleagues."
"I like Jill and the version of The Times she made," Carr wrote. "But my reporting, including interviews with senior people in the newsroom, some of them women, backs up his conclusion."
In addition, Somaiya tweeted that a majority of people with whom he had spoken approved of the change of leadership: "Mostly — and this is not comprehensive survey — people think change is for the better, but the transition has been very poorly handled."
However, he added that there are also smaller groups of people with much stronger feelings: Abramson's staunch supporters and people with whom she had clashed or who felt she had humiliated them.
As for the question of gender, both Somaiya and deputy international editor Lydia Polgreen have weighed in, saying they think people at the Times don't see gender or pay levels as factors in her firing.
All of this said, these are only a few people's broad reports on staff reactions. Though more information may dribble out in the coming weeks and months, uncovering a comprehensive picture of staff reactions to the Abramson firing seems near impossible.
Did Sulzberger say much about the firing afterward?
Yes, and he found himself playing some heavy defense. Sulzberger released two memos to staff denying two major storylines in the Abramson firing: that she was paid less than her predecessor, Bill Keller, and that her complaining about that pay gap contributed to the firing.
In the first memo, Sulzberger reported that Abramson's total compensation package — including benefits and bonuses — was at the time she left 10 percent higher than Keller's had been when he left, and that compensation played no part in her firing.
However, the longer the Abramson story developed, the more Sulzberger went on the offensive. In a May 17 memo, Sulzberger said staffers complained about "a series of issues" like Abramson's "arbitrary decisionmaking" and "public mistreatment of colleagues." He added that gender played no part in the firing, and that other women at the Times "do not look for special treatment."
In a May 20 Vanity Fair piece, Sulzberger expanded on his side of the story, saying he wished he had promoted Dean Baquet, Abramson's successor, to executive editor in 2011, rather than Abramson. He also framed the firing as an either-or between Baquet and Abramson. Baquet, enraged that Abramson had planned to hire a co-managing editor alongside him, had complained to Sulzberger, and Sulzberger believed he had to get rid of one or the other.
Did Abramson herself have much to say about the firing?
The Times' initial press release on Abramson's ouster included a formal statement from Abramson, in which she declared she loved working for the Times and thanked Sulzberger for giving her the chance to serve.
But aside from that and a few references in an altogether peppy May 19 commencement address at Wake Forest University, no.
Either way, she didn't have to say much. The Times sustained significant PR damage even without Abramson publicly opening her mouth. Many believe the paper handled the firing badly, with Times reporters themselves characterizing the changeover as "abrupt."
Thanks to anonymous sources giving information to reporters like the New Yorker's Ken Auletta, one story that immediately emerged from the firing was that of a woman executive editor who faced retaliation when she inquired about what she perceived to be a pay discrepancy.
In addition, Sulzberger has been widely criticized for his handling of the firing — Gawker poetically referred to him as "a human PR disaster," saying he seemed suspiciously evasive at first about exactly why Abramson was let go. In addition, the narrative that Abramson's pay somehow was a factor in her firing was allowed to catch hold early on, and it took over the news cycle at first.
His May 17 memo to staff in particular has been characterized as a "smearing" and a "rip" to Abramson by detailing what colleagues allegedly said to be her failings. Poynter's Jill Geisler also said she thought he made a mistake when he purported to speak for all women at the Times, saying they "do not look for special treatment, but expect to be treated with the same respect as their male colleagues. For that reason they want to be judged fairly and objectively on their performance."
Was Jill Abramson fired because she's a woman?
This gets the question wrong. Sexism is rarely explicit; that's what makes it so insidious. The argument Abramson's defenders made wasn't that she was fired for being a woman. It's that the criticisms of her management style are heavily gendered. The question that has been raised is whether a man with the same qualities would likely be seen as "tough" or "decisive."
Recode's Kara Swisher and Politico's Susan Glasser have written pieces on the Abramson firing, arguing that every criticism being made of Abramson is one that's been made, over and over again, of them and many other female editors.
"Love Jill Abramson or hate her, do you really believe that all of these women were unsuited for their jobs and temperamentally incompatible with the positions they had worked so hard to earn, after having beaten out male competitors in every case, and in environments where few if any other women flourished?" Asks Glasser. "Is it really possible that women editors, a rare species to begin with, can have a failure rate so close to 100 percent?"
Glasser pointed out that top newspapers and websites "are not given to elevating editors — of any gender — who would accept anything other than the highest of standards. As in tough, demanding, challenging." Gender, however, can be a hurdle in exactly this circumstance, she wrote: "[T]here's no doubt that many find this off-putting and threatening from a certain kind of woman."
"I cannot tell you the number of times that I have been called a pain in the ass for my aggressive manner. Silly me, but that kind of tonality is exactly what makes for a successful journalist," Swisher wrote.
You didn't answer my question!
This is very much a work in progress. It will continue to be updated as events unfold, new research gets published, and fresh questions emerge.
So if you have additional questions or comments or quibbles or complaints, send a note to Danielle Kurtzleben: firstname.lastname@example.org.
What else should I be reading?
In terms of high-profile examinations of Jill Abramson's tenure as executive editor, three pieces: Ken Auletta's 2011 New Yorker profile presents a picture of Abramson at the start of her time atop the masthead. This 2013 article for Politico, Dylan Byers presented a negative picture of Abramson as executive editor. And a 2013 Newsweek profile published shortly thereafter painted a softer picture of Abramson.
For the Times' own words on Abramson's firing, look to the initial press release, as well as Sulzberger's two subsequent memos on gender's role (or lack thereof) in the debacle. In addition, Times media reporters David Carr and Ravi Somaiya dug into the firing, reporting that Abramson had ruffled Sulzberger's feathers by upsetting Baquet over the potential hiring of Janine Gibson. In another column, Carr also reported that she had indeed "lost the support of her masthead colleagues" and people in the newsroom. Somaiya added in a series of tweets that many in the newsroom believed it was the right decision.
For a rundown of events and commentary on Abramson's departure, check out Vox's storystream on the topic.
To read why other women in journalism see a gendered aspect to Abramson's departure, see Kara Swisher's "Dear Jill: From One Pushy Media Dame to Another" at Recode, as well as Susan Glasser's "Editing While Female" at Politico, both of which are personal essays about their own experiences as loud, pushy women in journalism.
For some information on Abramson outside of her role as executive editor, check out "The Puppy Diaries," Abramson's 2011 book about her relationship with her dog, Scout. In addition, Vox's Max Fisher compiled anecdotes about the tattooed, dog-stealing journalist's badassery here.
What did Jill Abramson do after leaving the Times?
On June 12, 2014, Harvard University announced that Abramson would join the faculty, teaching narrative non-fiction courses to undergraduates.
In a statement, Abramson said that she considers narrative non-fiction "more important than ever." For its part, Harvard said it was "delighted" to have her aboard.
This is not the first time Abramson will have taught journalism; she has also taught writing seminars at both Yale and Princeton.
Abramson herself graduated from Harvard University in 1976, where she served as Arts Editor of the Harvard Independent.
How have these cards changed?
This is a running list of substantive updates, corrections, and additions to this card stack. Here is a summary of edits:
- June 13: Card 13 was added, on Abramson's move to Harvard University.