The sacking of The New York Times’ executive editor Jill Abramson last week has caused a flood of controversy within New York media ranks, and general uncertainty over the reasons behind her dismissal.
The newspaper’s publisher and chairman of The New York Times Company, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr, announced the move to the paper’s newsroom at around 2.30pm last Wednesday, declaring that the decision was the result of “an issue with management in the newsroom”. Dean Baquet, the managing editor of the newspaper and Abramson’s chief deputy, was appointed to take over executive editorship, effective immediately.
Soon after the news broke, it was reported by NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik that Ms Abramson recently challenged “corporate brass over what she saw as unequal pay”. The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta also reported that Ms Abramson confronted senior management after she “discovered that her pay and her pension benefits as both executive editor and, before that, as managing editor, were considerably less than the pay and pension benefits of Bill Keller, the male editor she replaced in both jobs”.
Mr Sulzberger in a statement denied that pay issues had anything to do with Ms Abramson’s firing, saying that in her last full year Abramson’s pay package was 10 per cent higher than Keller’s, and cited “arbitrary decision-making, a failure to consult and bring colleagues with her, inadequate communication and the public mistreatment of colleagues” as reasons for his decision.
Eileen Murphy, a spokeswoman for the Times, told The New Yorker that Ms Abramson’s pay was “directly comparable to Keller’s”, but that her challenge to management executives over pay and the fact that she brought a lawyer in to represent her in the disputes, was “part of a pattern that caused frustration”. Ms Murphy did however clarify that this did not mean any discussions over pay were a direct cause in her firing.
Media columnist for the Times David Carr, wrote a piece sympathetic to Abramson in the wake of her dismissal, but said that after speaking with senior staff from with the newspaper – both men and women – there was a sense that she had lost the support of her masthead colleagues and that Mr Sulzberger’s conclusions on this matter were reflected in staff sentiment.
Mr Carr also acknowledges what has now become the primary, and perhaps the most logical and straightforward, explanation for Ms Abramson’s exit: a dispute over a new hire. Ms Abramson had been trying to attract Guardian US editor Janine Gibson to the Times in a co-managing editor role alongside Mr Baquet, where she would head up the newspaper’s digital offering.
Ms Abramson, it is suspected, was keen to bolster management of the newspaper’s digital products after a damning internal innovation report concluded that the company was well behind where they needed to be in the digital space. Ms Abramson had gotten to know Ms Gibson after the two had worked together on several stories about NSA documents passed to the Guardian US by national security contractor Edward Snowden, and was keen to get her into the Times.
According to several reports, Ms Abramson told Mr Sulzberger and Times CEO Mark Thompson that she had spoken to other masthead leaders about her decision to try to recruit Ms Gibson and that Mr Baquet, in particular, was on board with the choice. Sources referred to in the reports said that Mr Baquet did not learn that an offer had been made to Ms Gibson, until the two met for lunch on May 5 and he was told by Ms Gibson that an offer was on the table. He was angered by the discovery and felt that Abramson had gone behind his back.
At a dinner with Mr Sulzberger two days later, on May 7, Mr Baquet expressed his frustration to the Times’ publisher about the Gibson offer, and also told Mr Sulzberger that he had been offered a job by Bloomberg News.
Mr Sulzberger, realising that if the newspaper did not act soon it risked losing Mr Baquet, offered him the executive editor role. Had he not, it is likely that Baquet would have left the company, as he had given Sulzberger a direct ultimatum at the dinner; Baquet “could no longer work with Abramson. It was him or her”. Mr Sulzberger had been told by staff at the Times that the one person the paper could not lose was Mr Baquet and that he was holding the newsroom together. When faced with a binary decision on who would lead the newspaper into the future, he chose the candidate he thought was most valued among newsroom and masthead staff.
This narrative of the firing suits Mr Sulzberger and the Times from public relations perspective and presents a less murky picture than any controversy over pay imbalance between a female editor and her male predecessor. For now any alternate explanations are difficult to confirm until Ms Abramson publicly addresses the matter, but that does not rule them out.
In a statement after her firing, Ms Abramson said that she “loved her run” at the newspaper and noted the considerable amount of female senior editors appointed during her tenure as one of her achievements.
With his appointment, Mr Baquet has become the first African-American executive editor in The New York Times’ history.
Ms Abramson, 60, had been top editor at The New York Times for three years, after joining the newspaper in 1997.
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