Dear Jill Abramson, These Are the 5 Things I Learned From You Getting Fired From The New York Times
The news industry FREAKED OUT when you, the executive editor of The New York Times, were fired and replaced with your #2.
It's a complicated story, with issues of gender, leadership style, and office and personal politics.
What does it all mean?
Jill, as a former New York Times editor and the leader of my own news organization, Kicker, with a talented team of young aspiring journalists, I want to glean the right lessons from your story.
And I think all young journalists – OK, young corporate leaders in all industries – can learn something valuable for their own careers from your story too.
Here are five things I've learned.
1. Don't have an aggressive leadership style
Or maybe you should – if you're male. Even though I'd like to …
Can we all agree that NO ONE will write a piece about what the Jill Abramson ouster says about female leaders?
— Holly Epstein Ojalvo (@heoj) May 14, 2014
… I don't think we can avoid the gender issue.
So let's not mince words: you're known for being "mercurial" and "abrasive." That's apparently partly why you were fired.
wait, editors get fired for being mercurial and brusque?
— Brian Morrissey (@bmorrissey) May 15, 2014
That reminds me of A.M. Rosenthal, who had your job years ago. He didn't get fired, he retired. When he died, his obituary in The Times described his leadership style and tenure this way:
“Brilliant, passionate, abrasive, a man of dark moods and mercurial temperament, he could coolly evaluate world developments one minute and humble a subordinate for an error in the next.”
“His critics ... blamed what they called his combative and imperious style for many resignations, including those of some highly regarded reporters and editors, from a staff that in former days had rarely lost members except to retirement or death.”
“Throughout Mr. Rosenthal's years as editor, press critics chronicled his rising fortune and the growing success of The Times. But they also described Mr. Rosenthal personally and as an administrator in generally unflattering terms and characterized his staff as rife with grumbling and low morale.”
And much more recently, after tangling with you over a decision, your managing editor, Dean Baquet, slammed his hand against a wall and stormed out. But staffers were apparently complaining about times you’d blown up, not him. And Baquet was just promoted to your job.
I can't help but see that male editors are expected to be, and lauded for being, tough and gruff, while female editors have to navigate the territory between the stereotypes of Iron Lady and House Mother. Am I wrong?
2. Don't ask if you're being paid fairly
You apparently recently went to your bosses when you discovered that Bill Keller, who held your job before you, had earned more money than you. Reports say execs saw this as "pushy."
But hold on a sec. Just a few weeks ago, The New York Times ran an editorial – representing the views of the newspaper itself – about the pay gap between women and men:
“Greater transparency could have a significant impact, giving employers incentive to correct unfair pay discrepancies by making it more likely that employees will find out if they are being shortchanged.”
The Times says simply – defensively? – that Keller wasn't paid "meaningfully" more than you, and that's that. But the editorial advises the President of the United States on how to talk about the White House's own pay gap:
"But instead of becoming defensive and trying to explain away the discrepancy, Mr. Obama should simply say the White House has to do better and present the lag for what it is: more evidence that the problem persists even in workplaces committed to equal treatment."
Good advice, right? Though The Times now denies that any of that was a factor, the discussion around it is chilling, to say the least.
3. Being effective isn't enough
When Bill Keller told Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger in 2011 he wanted to step down – setting the stage for you to ascend to his job – Sulzberger asked him,
"Why would you want to leave when things are going so well?"
Sulzberger was referring to the fact that under Keller's leadership The Times had just gotten two Pulitzer Prizes (for non-media types, the Pulitzers are the Oscars of journalism) and advertising revenue was finally starting to trickle back up after tanking.
Fast forward to 2014. Sulzburger pushed you out because of a "leadership issue in the newsroom." Interesting, because under your leadership the paper earned eight Pulitzers and grew much more as a business.
So … why would he want you to leave when things were going so well?
4. It kind of sucks to be a woman in journalism
It's not just leadership style or the pay gap or being held to different standards. The whole news industry has a woman problem.
In fact, just two days before you were fired, the Times public editor, Margaret Sullivan, pointed out that women are still drastically underrepresented in newsrooms -- which is a problem because that means certain stories don't get told.
Arthur Sulzberger said sometimes women get fired "just as men are." Yes, true.
Except for the fact that he abruptly canned you and Janet Robinson, the former Times CEO, but treated men who were let go pretty differently. Like when Howell Raines was fired after a huge scandal that seriously damaged The Times's reputation and prestige, he gave a farewell speech to the staff with his wife looking on.
Maybe you decided against that participating in that kind of scene, Jill, but the optics are clear that you got treated harshly.
5. Innovation is the name of the game ... sort of
You yourself commissioned a report that showed that innovation was lacking at The Times under your leadership. (I could have told you that myself. After all, I left to launch Kicker. But that's a story for another day.)
That report may well have been a nail in your coffin. Sulzberger certainly hinted at that in his announcement about Baquet replacing you:
"This appointment comes at a time when the newsroom is about to embark on a significant effort to transition more fully to a digital-first reality and where, across the organization, we are all learning to adapt to the rapid pace of change in our business."
Given that, let's look at what Baquet said about being promoted to your job. In his first interview after his appointment was announced, here's what he said:
“The trick of running The New York Times is that you have to keep in mind that it is a very powerful print newspaper with a very appreciative audience. You have to protect that while you go out there and get more readers through other means.”
That's digital-first thinking? Print first, "other means" of audience discovery second? OK.
Am I missing something here?
Additional reporting was done by Jenny Cain.
Holly Epstein Ojalvo
Holly’s mission is to inform, inspire, and empower engaged activists who will change the world. She was previously an editor at The New York Times and a high school teacher. She spent her brief 20’s slump at a mousepad factory. Holly earned a B.A. at Lafayette College and M.A.'s at U Delaware and NYU. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, daughter, and cat, Tomie Twotone. Follow: @heoj.