Jill Abramson’s Firing And The New York Times’ Chaotic Future

The abrupt dismissal of the executive editor portends a bumpy road ahead for her successor, Dean Baquet, and the rest of the newsroom.

Jill Abramson in May 2013 in New York City. Brad Barket / Getty Images for WIRED

When the news broke that Jill Abramson was out as executive editor of the New York Times, where I worked full time from 1998 to 2004, I emailed friends there to get their reactions. It seemed like everyone was shocked, and wrote back things like, “Trying to find out!” or “!!!!!!!!” One friend and former colleague wrote, “The 2 seniorest women in NYT history: both vanished with no warning or explanation to anybody,” in reference to Janet Robinson, the former New York Times CEO who was also axed by publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. in recent years.

While it wasn’t a surprise that things weren’t going well for Abramson, it is always shocking when a big newspaper does something quickly. If The New York Times is still the standard bearer of journalism, it seems also to be a thought leader in organizational chaos; after all, this is the second time in 11 years that Sulzberger has had to fire an editor for morale reasons (the first was Howell Raines, 2003). By firing Abramson, and promoting managing editor Dean Baquet, Sulzberger is retrenching, and perhaps buying some time. What people will be interested to see isn’t necessarily what the Baquet era means, but who his managing editor will be: That, it is thought, will indicate the real direction of the New York Times’ future.

But first, the past. As Bill Keller’s tenure as editor was coming to a close in 2011, Abramson was appointed editor after emerging victorious in a bake-off between her and Baquet, who had returned to the paper in 2007 after committing Seppuku as the editor of the Los Angeles Times by standing up to Tribune Co. overlords who were making him cut his staff to the bone. The Abramson vs. Baquet showdown was a reversal of the Hillary Clinton vs. Barack Obama fight that they reflected, and not only because of race and sex: Baquet projects an air of calm and cool, and Abramson pushes people. As with Obama and Clinton, the second-place finisher worked for the victor: Baquet became Abramson’s managing editor.

It wasn’t long into Abramson’s editorship before horror stories began to leak out. From the inside, some friends told me things felt bad; from the outside, they looked pretty crazy. In a power grab over the website (and Jim Roberts, who oversaw it and is now Mashable’s editor-in-chief), Abramson ended NYTimes.com’s independence as its own operation, and the desks began reporting up through print, which digital people will tell you is never welcome. (And is always a bad idea.) Abramson had her allies and fans, of course, but it seemed like a smaller circle than editors usually (and should) have surrounding them — and telling them no. And people like assistant managing editor Rick Berke, who had once been a close confidante, somehow ended up leaving anyway. During buyouts, she shoved out popular editors such as Roberts and Jonathan Landman. Last year, she fired Hugo Lindgren as the editor of the magazine. She also clashed with Mark Thompson, the CEO whom Sulzberger hired from the BBC in 2012 — a natural occurrence for the business side versus edit, but now one of them is gone.

With Abramson out, Thompson is further empowered. And Baquet will be the new editor, the first African-American in the job in the company’s history. (Abramson, of course, was the first woman in the job.)

I worked for both Baquet and Abramson, though never at the same time: Baquet hired me away from the New York Times in the summer of 2006 to be the TV editor at the Los Angeles Times. It turned out to be only months before he was fired, and things began to fall apart there. (Things are always falling apart there — it’s status quo, and they’re also always pretty much fine in the end). Before I took the job, the New York Times — where I had worked on the website since 1998 and then permalanced as a TV reporter from 2004 to 2006 — wanted to counteroffer me a full-time job as a TV reporter in the New York (where I lived) office. Abramson liked my writing, I was told, and wanted to make the offer herself over lunch.

I showed up at my appointed time, and her assistant didn’t have me on the schedule. Luckily, Abramson remembered we were seeing each other. She hadn’t made a reservation and it was a Wednesday matinee day in Times Square, so we wandered around, being turned away pretty much everywhere. We finally found a place on 9th Ave., and sat down and talked. I loved it. I was a huge admirer of hers since I’d read Strange Justice, her book about the Clarence Thomas hearings, and I had always thought she seemed funny and honest from my time as a plebe observer from NYTimes.com. But I also wanted her to offer me the job — with salary and details — so I could figure out what I was doing with my life: Was I moving to Los Angeles?

We talked about Grey’s Anatomy, we talked about Entourage. She was a big TV watcher, it turned out. It was fun talking. But lunch ended, and there was no mention of a job. When I did get the offer later that day, I had already made up my mind that I was going to the L.A. Times.

It seemed better managed, ha!

These newspapers. They’re such disasters these days, as is every place trying to fight the seismic change in how people consume news and whether there’s a profitable market for that. From my brief intersection with him at the LAT, where he treated the website with benign neglect, I hope Baquet really has changed his stance toward the internet. There is a reason the LAT is still digging itself out online after years of being run by lauded print editors who didn’t understand the digital future. The recent internal New York Times report called for more newsroom innovation, especially digitally. Whatever Abramson’s management issues were, her NYTimes.com has been great. Can Baquet lead that parade? I hope so, for the sake of my NYT friends, and for all of us who still love what is produced there, daily, hourly, minutely. We all need the New York Times.

And for Jill Abramson — sigh. She got fired with less dignity than Judith Miller, who practically started the Iraq War. I hope tattoo removal has advanced significantly.

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