Sunday, May 18, 2014

My postmortem on Jill Abramson's depature from the NYT

Not that anybody asked me, but I've been following the Jill Abramson story closely. I'm interested, both as a consumer of news and as a former New York Times company employee. (And who still has a fully vested pension waiting in the wings, I should mention.) Based on what's come to light, here's what it looks like to me:

·    More and more, this looks like a power struggle between Dean Baquet and Abramson than anything else. It seems clear Sulzberger had buyer's remorse over choosing her instead of Dean for the top job, and he was clearly seen as the future. Abramson tried to marginalize Dean by bringing in a co-No. 2, perhaps playing defense against a rival. Baquet was getting offers/interest from outside the company, and whined to the top brass about his boss going behind his back (which, I should point out, constitutes going being his boss' back).

·    In terms of the messy exit, that appears to be entirely on Abramson. Based on Howard Kurtz' reporting and other accounts, she was offered the classy good-bye to the newsroom and a B.S. segue job. She was pissed, and wanted to make sure everyone knew she was fired, and that she was mad about it. That's fine, but don't complain about being disrespected when you dictated the terms of your departure. Also, if there's more damage to the troops' morale this way, it's because Abramson chose her needs/wants over those of the institution. Not surprising given the circumstances, but again, she chose as acrimonious a parting as possible.

·    The money issue is complete bullpucky. I'll reiterate from a previous post: no one should expect to make what their predecessor was making right when they take over. If someone's older/more experienced/has more tenure with the company, they're going to be higher at the end of their term. The true comparison is her first and last year with her predecessor's first and last year, with some adjustment for inflation. She hadn't been around as long as Bill Keller, or as long with the Times, but was receiving comparable compensation after 2.5 years on the job at the same point when Keller had been editor for more than eight years. Room for complaint: Zippo.

·    All this said, I think the Times' reasons for deep-sixing Abramson amount to weak tea. It's clear she was not well liked in the newsroom, but her journalism credentials and instincts appeared to be solid. Getting rid of somebody because their successor might be better, and might jump ship if they don't get the job soon, is speculative and dangerous. If I was Sulzberger I would've said to Baquet, "Look, you're my guy. The job is yours whenever Jill leaves. But she deserves at least another year or two at the helm. The Times is doing well in terms of digital growth and content, and poor personal skills aren't enough reason to dump a chief executive, at least until they've been put on notice and given time to grow."

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