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Wednesday, May 14, 2014

If you’ve been on Twitter today, you already know it: This afternoon, the New York Times reported that Jill Abramson, its executive editor, “is unexpectedly leaving the position and will be replaced by Dean Baquet, the managing editor.” Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. made the announcement in the Times newsroom at 2:30 p.m. ET.

Abramson, 60, was appointed to the top job on the news side in 2011; she was the first woman in that role. Baquet, 57, will be the first African-American in the job.

I know Jill slightly through MrB. She worked for him at the Wall Street Journal for about five years and is now on the editorial advisory board for ProPublica, the independent, non-profit newsroom of which MrB was the founding editor-in-chief and is now executive chairman. MrB knows Dean too, though not very well — their contact was just enough to encourage me to invite Dean to speak at the Columbia Daily Spectator‘s annual dinner in 2009. Both MrB and I know Arthur; we went to his 60th birthday party in 2011.

Despite all that, I have no inside information on what led to the abrupt end to Jill’s tenure. In his comments to the newsroom, which I read on the Washington Post’s website, Arthur made several points about what did NOT cause the ouster. He said:

  • “It is not about the quality of our journalism, which in my mind has never been better.”
  • “… this is not about any disagreement over the direction of our digital future or any of the steps we have taken recently to create and launch new digital products and services.”
  • “This is also not about any sort of disagreement between the newsroom and the business side over the critical principle of an independent newsroom.”

What did lead to the shakeup was left vague. Arthur said:

“… I choose to appoint a new leader for our newsroom because I believe that new leadership will improve some aspects of the management of the newsroom.”

Arthur added, “…there is nothing more I am going to say about this, but I want to assure all of you that there is nothing more at issue here.”

Unlike the previous executive editor, Bill Keller, who held the job for eight years (I’ve sat next to him at dinner a few times too), Jill isn’t staying on as a columnist. The Washington Post reported:

”[Jill’s] left the Times,’ says New York Times spokeswoman Eileen Murphy. ‘She’s not here.’ Murphy declined to comment on whether the clean break was the decision of Abramson, Sulzberger or a mutual thing.”

Cut to me throwing some major side-eye at the New York Times right now. My concerns are captured in a April 29 Bloomberg View story by Leonid Bershidsky, entitled “Why Women CEOs Get Fired More Often.” (Thanks to Kirsten Salyer of Bloomberg View for tweeting the link to it today.) The story cited the annual study of chief executives conducted by strangely-named consulting company Strategy&. The 2013 report had a special focus on women chief executives over the past 10 years. It found that over that period, 38% of female CEOs of the world’s 2,500 biggest public companies were fired, compared to 27%  of their male counterparts. The Bloomberg story explained:

“This is not evidence of male superiority on the job, but of the so-called glass cliff theory. According to this, women and other ‘occupational minorities,’ such as people with a different skin color, tend to get appointed to top jobs when a company needs saving. When these women fail — and in a crisis, the probability of failure is higher — boardrooms fall back on tradition. They replace the women with white men who have lots of industry experience.”

The story continued:

“Alison Cook and Christy Glass, the authors of another recent paper that studied Fortune 500 CEO transitions from 1996 to 2010, call this ‘the savior effect.’ Their research found that companies showing diminished returns on equity and assets were more likely to put women and minorities in the top job.”

That sounds right for the newspaper industry, which has been plagued by plummeting print ad revenues and readership as consumers of news are drawn online.

One aspect of the Bloomberg story that doesn’t apply to Jill — who has been in the news business her entire career — is that many women who get top jobs are likely to have had more varied professional experience than men in similar positions, citing in-depth interviews of leaders conducted by Terrance Fitzsimmons of Australia’s University of Queensland.  “Female respondents held far more positions in their careers and had moved outside their initial industry many more times than their male counterparts,” Fitzsimmons wrote. (I relate to this; you can read my lengthy summary of the lessons learned from my varied career here.)

All of these factors, Bershidsky reported, leads to this:

“Women are treated as exotic outsiders, brought to the helm when board members are feeling adventurous (mainly out of necessity). They have to prove their worth in situations that powerful men suspect may be hopeless.”

If the hopeless situation does, indeed, prove hopeless, a female executive of the sort described in the Bloomberg story can serve as a scapegoat in the original sense of the word — a sacrifice.

You have an even better scapegoat if you’ve got a female executive who can be described as “uncaring,” “stubborn,” “impossible,” “brusque,” and “unreasonable,” which were all words used to describe Jill Abramson in a take-down published by Politico on April 23, 2013. Those adjectives are terrible for a woman’s career. In contrast, during my days in business journalism,  male executives who were admired for ruthlessly firing thousands of employees in order to improve the bottom line got cool-sounding nicknames like “Chainsaw Al” and “Neutron Jack” instead of walking papers. And, admittedly, Hollywood is its own extremely weird world, but Oscar-and-Tony-award-winning movie/theater producer Scott Rudin (The Grand Budapest Hotel, Captain Phillips, No Country for Old Men, The Book of Mormon) seems unscathed by a 2005 Wall Street Journal story entitled “Boss-Zilla,” which explained “why Mr. Rudin holds the unofficial crown of Hollywood’s most feared boss.” Reporters Kate Kelly and Merissa Marr wrote, “… in Mr. Rudin’s office, caustic rants, shrieking threats and impulsive firings are routine. ” Rudin himself described his management style as “a cross between Attila the Hun and Miss Jean Brodie.” When one former assistant told the Wall Street Journal he was fired for bringing Rudin the wrong kind of muffin, Rudin said that, while he didn’t remember that incident, it was “entirely possible.” Compare this to the New York Times under Abramson where, according to a July 31, 2013, Newsweek story,  despite the forced buyouts of 30 midlevel editors, “Abramson’s newsroom is staffed at the same level (around 1,100 employees) as it was a decade ago, and boasts 14 national and six regional bureaus, plus 25 foreign bureaus — more than at any moment in the paper’s history.”

As I’ve been writing this, another damning word —  “pushy” — has popped up regarding Jill, according to the New Yorker’s Ken Auletta (Another disclaimer: MrB and I have dined with Ken and his wife, famed literary agent Amanda “Binky” Urban.) Writing about Jill’s firing today, Auletta reports:

“Several weeks ago, I’m told, Abramson 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 whom she replaced in both jobs. ‘She confronted the top brass,’ one close associate said, and this may have fed into the management’s narrative that she was ‘pushy,’ a characterization that, for many, has an inescapably gendered aspect.”

Well! If that’s true, I’ll have to upgrade my side-eye for a shank-eye. The New Yorker story raises some other interesting issues, so I recommend reading the whole piece.  (UPDATED MAY 15: ARTHUR’S RESPONSE ABOUT PAY IS HERE; ALSO SEE MY SIXTH UPDATE BELOW.)


I’ll be interested to see what else comes out about this in the next couple of days. For now, I’ll leave you with this highlarious tweet from my friend Stef.



UPDATED TO ADD: Here are a couple of Times statements about the pay issue, saying Jill’s pay was “directly comparable” to Bill Keller’s. Not exactly sure what that means.

UPDATED AGAIN TO ADD: This story from Bloomberg says that Jill and Arthur didn’t get along from the beginning.

UPDATED YET AGAIN TO ADD: Here’s a good comparison of a Jill Abramson anecdote with a similar one about Tim Cook of Apple.

FOURTH UPDATE: The Atlantic has a story about the “narrow band of acceptable behavior” for women leaders. (I am very familiar with the need to smile when I don’t want to in order to get things done in the corporate world. At the same time, I’ve also been criticized for smiling too much.) Also, here’s the profile of Jill that Ken Auletta wrote for the New Yorker when she got the executive editor job in 2011.

FIFTH UPDATE, ADDED MAY 15: This New York Magazine piece by Ann Friedman called “Jill Abramson Will Never Know Why She Got Fired” is a must-read. Friedman writes, “A muddled combination of complicated interpersonal stuff, not a single action or failure or incident, isn’t just an explanation for Abramson’s exit. It’s a reality for women in almost any workplace.” She goes on to say:

“Women never know whether they’re being met with a hostile reaction because of their performance — something that they can address and change — or because of both male and female colleagues’ internalized notions of how women should behave. I’ve asked these questions about my own career: Am I struggling because I’m not playing the game well enough, or because the game is rigged against me? “

In other words, to cite the Atlantic story I linked to above: “How do I know if I am smiling too much or not enough? And wait! Why do I HAVE to smile at all? I never see those dudes smile.”

Another article in New York Magazine, this one by Gabriel Sherman, tells how Arthur Sulzberger had trouble with Jill before he even appointed her to the job. Oh, how many times did I experience/witness that during my corporate days! When they don’t like you in the first place, yet grudgingly give you the job because, really, you deserve it, it’s next to impossible to “manage up” skillfully enough to remedy the situation. Also, this kind of scenario, by definition, tends to ensnare people who aren’t the best equipped to turn it around: If they were the kind of diplomats who could do that, the boss would never have been against them.

A lack of diplomacy isn’t necessarily equivalent to a lack of competency, as I’ve recently reminded people in another context. (If it was, I pointed out, I would never have held a job for very long.) However, it is common for higher-ups to feel that diplomacy and competency are entirely one and the same, especially when a woman is involved. Certainly, a lack of diplomacy can seriously impact your ability to do your job if you can’t manage down, up or in either direction — but plenty of men power through that.  I dealt with one male non-diplomat who had a successful 40-plus-year career at one company before hitting retirement age and departing on his own terms. (He was the one who taught me how to deal with his kind of aggressive workplace personality. First, never show fear. Second, if you’re a woman, smile. He once said to me, “Brandes, you come in my office and say all this mean shit to me but you’re smiling.”) As an example from another industry, I offer this story about another award-winning male movie producer, once a “spitting, cursing blowhard” who has chilled out so much that now he only has “slight” tantrums. Another story about the same man notes that, “even people who hate” him will admit he’s the best at what he does. I wonder how many hated women would get similar credit!

SIXTH UPDATE, ADDED MAY 15:  New York Magazine’s Daily Intelligencer column reported on Arthur Sulzberger’s memo to the New York Times staff about the pay issue. It reads, in part:

“It is simply not true that Jill’s compensation was significantly less than her predecessors.  Her pay is comparable to that of earlier executive editors.  In fact, in 2013, her last full year in the role, her total compensation package was more than 10% higher than that of her predecessor, Bill Keller, in his last full year as Executive Editor, which was 2010.  It was also higher than his total compensation in any previous year.”

Click here to read the full story and memo.

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24 Responses to “Jill Abramson Out at New York Times; Cue My Side-Eye”

  1. Susan Partlan says:

    I come here for the news :). Spelling out what didn’t cause the ouster, nothing to do with quality, direction, independence, but commenting “new leadership will improve some aspects of the management of the newsroom” implies that it has something to do with management style. Auletta’s reporting of the compensation incident possibly feeding the “pushy” narrative sure sounds like gender scapegoating to me.

    Thank you for this post!

    • WendyB says:

      Thank you for reading it, I never know if anyone is going to bother! LOL!

      • Susan Partlan says:

        As a side note, Neutron Jack is the reason my family moved to California — he basically obliterated the funding structure for GE R&D in Schenectady, NY, requiring all R & D departments to go begging for funds from individual GE components, which needed proof that the research tied directly to their bottom line. Crazy patchworks of funding kept some projects alive, but many, many others died on the vine or moved to Silicon Valley (and other) R & D counterparts. Hard to imagine a woman executive in his role getting away with it.

      • WendyB says:

        At least Chainsaw Al ended up in jail. Though even that didn’t make me feel better about all the ass-kissing he got for years prior to that.

    • AK says:

      Agree completely. Thanks for this write-up, Wendy!

  2. Catherine says:

    I came here immediately after I read the Time’s own story. I’m disappointed in this news. At my own work, I see horrible men praised while women with opinions are labeled with awful names. Ugh.

    • WendyB says:

      I’ve also noticed some stories saying “they” were concerned about Jill’s personality from the beginning — I’m familiar with that behavior at corporations. Put someone into a job while you’re already formulating the reasons you’re going to fire her. There’s no support, you’re just doomed from the start.

  3. Anne says:

    “Directly comparable” could mean anything! Here, I’ll compare this frog to a boulder. They’re directly comparable!

  4. Patti says:

    First, “Pushy Riot” is hilarious, thanks for sharing. Second, my eye cannot go more sideways when I read about this firing. My guess is Jill wouldn’t “smile” for her less-than-Bill’s compensation package. And we all know base salary isn’t the whole pic.

  5. K-Line says:

    I come here for the news also! I’m always so intrigued by your take on these things – especially as you manage to give a balanced perspective, even as you know the parties involved. Good journalism, Wendy.

  6. déjà pseu says:

    Wendy, I always appreciate your thoughtful analyses, especially when it comes to media. I think there’s also something at work here which I’ve encountered with some bosses: once a boss gets a negative impression of an employee, it can be VERY hard to get them to shake that impression. And yes, I’m certain there were some double standards at work here, even if only with the way her firing was handled.

    • WendyB says:

      “once a boss gets a negative impression of an employee, it can be VERY hard to get them to shake that impression.” — this is so true. I’ve heard/read people say “she could have done this or that to fix it” but in my experience this kind of thing is nearly impossible to fix. I can’t think of a great example of a turnaround. I definitely know of instances where it was fixed enough for the employee to avoid being fired, but the relationship was never great after that. Just tolerable.

  7. Adele says:

    My nature is that of an inveterate lurker, but I feel compelled to come out of the shadows and say thank you for this excellent post. Your blog is always inspiring – today it is also comforting to find a place where we can join together to give a shank-eye to these double-standards.

  8. HelOnWheels says:

    Another fantastic post, Ms. Wendy! I just knew that you would be addressing this issue. Thank you for the insightful and thoughtful analysis, again. That smiling thing pisses me off beyond comprehension!

    Another disgusting double standard? Women being judged on our appearance and looks as it relates to our job performance. Nobody says to these d-bags that they look sick or tired or “unqualified” if they’re not wearing the right amount of make-up that has been deemed appropriate by whatever male standard has been set arbitrarily!

  9. stacy says:

    I love your insider info. on these stories! And with all that, we still can’t get to the bottom of it. People are so vague and phony… we all know the deal here. Of course they had to replace a woman with a minority (not that he isn’t qualified and brilliant), but that gives them something to hide behind. It’s all so, “See… we’re fair!”