Monday, May 19, 2014


It's been less than a week since Jill Abramson was surprisingly fired as New York Times executive editor and the fallout from this mishandled departure continues to grow.

It is still unclear if her firing was due to reported complaints about her salary, her retaining a lawyer to help with that issue, or her alleged poor management.

Then there is the continued claims about sexism. Is she being unfairly described as "pushy" or "bossy" as some have reported in the past?

And should the Times have known that firing its first female executive editor in such a blunt way with little initial explanation would not go over so well?

Yes, this has turned into a P.R. nightmare for the paper.

P.R. is usually only an image thing and there is little chance that this affects the quality of the paper as Dean Baquet, a supremely qualified and respected journalist, takes over.

Still, the many issues this raises about newspaper management, women in editorship roles, and coverage of a newsrooms inner problems make it hard to ignore.

It could be argued that Abramson has been unfairly painted as something unusual in the editor world. If she is pushy or bossy or any other description that means tough or demanding of quality, she is far from unusual among newspaper editors. 

I have worked at four newspapers and one magazine and most of my editors were pushy, bossy or both. And that is as much a compliment as an observation. In today's news world, editors need to be tough on reporters and make sure the work is of the highest quality.

Apparently a woman showing these traits is given more criticism. Not a fair view.

But, as is often the case, there is probably more to this than we see and the truth usually falls somewhere in the middle.

Did Abramson rub some people the wrong way? Possibly. 

Former Times scribe Brian Stelter, now host of CNN's Reliable Sources, brought together a good group to review the matter on Sunday's show, and said of his own dealings with Abramson that she made leaving easier when he joined CNN last year.

David Carr, the Times media columnist, penned a great look at the inside and outside of this issue today, stating, "It is one thing to gossip or complain about your boss, but quite another to watch her head get chopped off in the cold light of day. The lack of decorum was stunning."

In my few dealings with Abramson, she was professional and responsive, whether by email or phone. During an interview with me in 2011 just weeks after she took the top job, Abramson said of her approach: "I think everybody who worked with me as managing editor knows that the kind of stories I love are the story behind the story, full of narrative detail ... I will push for our coverage always to get behind the curtain."

The last time I spoke with her in person was at the 2013 American Society of News Editors conference in Washington, D.C. where she was honored along with former Oregonian Editor Sandra Mims Rowe. 

That event came just days after she had been roughed up by a Politico story that claimed she was disliked by the newsroom, a story many have pointed to this past week when looking at the steps that may have led to her firing.

As for Abramson, she had stayed quiet on the issue until today, speaking at the Wake Forest University commencement, where she said, "leaving a job you love hurts," and "we human beings are a lot more resilient than we realize."

She also praised the work of the Times and said she does not know what comes next.

It is clear that Abramson will likely land on her feet and put her great experience and skills to work somewhere. Interestingly, the man who replaced her, Dean Baquet, was himself let go years ago from the top editor job at the Los Angeles Times. He soon after signed on with the New York Times, first as Washington bureau chief, then managing editor before getting the executive editor job last week.

But for the Times, and newspapers in general, the reduction in women editors at top papers should be of concern. As I noted last week, Abramson's departure means none of the top 10 daily newspapers by circulation have a woman editor. This is concerning given the fact that half of them have had women editors in the past, but failed to replace them.

Further, among the top 25 newspapers, only two have females at the helm.

The Times, meanwhile, has to do some quick work to help its image, and reality, when it comes to treatment of women seeking to rise to higher positions. It is likely we have not seen the last of this issue. 

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