I’m sure most of you have heard about The New York Times firing its executive editor, Jill Abramson, last week.
It surprised the heck out of me when I heard about it while vacationing in Washington D.C., but after learning more about what triggered it, it was clear that Abramson had to go.
The Times’ great media columnist David Carr laid all the cards on the table Monday. The backdrop was that Abramson, the first female executive editor at The Times, and Managing Editor Dean Baquet — who has now succeeded Abramson in the top newsroom job — had been at war for some time.
POLITICO reported last year that earlier in 2013 Baquet once slammed his fist against a newsroom wall after Abramson privately chastised him for the paper’s coverage not being “buzzy” enough in the days or weeks before the reprimand.
The POLITICO story went on to say this:
“In recent months, Abramson has become a source of widespread frustration and anxiety within the Times newsroom. More than a dozen current and former members of the editorial staff, all of whom spoke to POLITICO on the condition of anonymity, described her as stubborn and condescending, saying they found her difficult to work with. If Baquet had burst out of the office in a huff, many said, it was likely because Abramson had been unreasonable.”
It didn’t hurt that Baquet apparently is just the opposite of Abramson — supportive and solicitous of employees and, consequently, well liked.
Now, if otherwise successful, a top editor can get away with being stubborn and condescending, but you can’t get away with making a fatal personnel mistake.
What Abramson did was attempt to bring in a senior editor at The Guardian of London as a co-managing editor for digital. That would have put the prospective hire, a woman named Janine Gibson, on equal footing with Baquet. Trouble is Abramson didn’t tell Baquet about her intention. It’s not clear if she told Sulzberger, but she would have had to get his approval for the hiring at some point.
Carr called the secretive hiring attempt “a big tactical mistake.” Baquet, he said, “was furious and worried about how it would affect not only him but the rest of the news operation as well.”
That prompted Baquet to go “all in,” as they say on poker TV, by going to publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and saying he would leave the paper if Gibson’s hiring went through.
It was the ultimate bold play, but Baquet was holding the silver bullet — Abramson’s overt attempt to circumvent him — and Sulzberger chopped her head off and elevated Baquet, who is the first African-American to become executive editor of The Times.
The firing triggered “a gleeful frenzy in Manhattan media,” as Carr put it, with Abramson being stoutly defended by several writers. Inside the newsroom, the eruption sparked considerable anxiety, according to Carr, particularly among female employees who are wondering if The Times is “a fair place to work.”
But here’s what I love about The Times…In the larger scope of things, the masthead revision probably will make very little difference in how the paper operates.
Here’s how Carr explained that:
“We have a talented executive editor, a stable if challenged business outlook and a very dedicated audience. To the extent that The New York Times does anything remarkable, it emerges from collaboration and shared enterprise. It’s worth remembering that its legacy begets an excellence that surpasses the particulars of who produces it.”
Carr experienced the importance of that sense of shared enterprise before he was hired. He recalled being interviewed by then-managing editor Gerald Boyd, and Boyd being skeptical of Carr’s lack of daily experience and “my more noisy tendencies.”
But Carr, being quick on his feet and blessed with extraordinary perspective, realized what Boyd wanted to hear and said, “I understand that if I come to work at The New York Times, the needs of the many will frequently supersede the needs of the one.”
And with that, Carr was in…And now, with a brand new executive editor, The Times rolls on.