On Jill Abramson and the Joyless Job of Managing/Upmanaging at the Times

Is Arthur Sulzberger Jr. Some Kind of Hero for Rescuing the NYT Newsroom From a Mean Boss? Uh, Not Exactly

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Arthur Sulzberger Jr. at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York on Sept. 25, 2012.
Arthur Sulzberger Jr. at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York on Sept. 25, 2012. Credit: Peter Foley/Bloomberg

A couple years ago I went to a party in Austin, Texas, during SXSW that New York Times media columnist David Carr held in his hotel room. It was low-key and very informal -- Carr had filled his bathtub with ice and cans of cheap beer for his guests -- and the mood among the tech-meets-media crowd (e.g., executives from Twitter and Kickstarter, reporters and editors from Wired and Mother Jones) was Austin-style chill.

New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson came to the party, and what struck me the most about her is that she didn't mix. Shortly after her arrival, she planted herself on a banquette by a window where she was bracketed by two women -- fellow Timesfolk, someone told me later -- and the three talked only amongst themselves for the 90 minutes or so I was there.

When I had to leave for another event, I realized my backpack was trapped on the banquette behind the threesome, so I affected the universal we're-at-a-party-so-let's-mingle body language of sort of lingering/crouching at the edge of their group, beer in hand, without actually barging in. But they remained in a tight, three-way conversation, and though one of Abramson's protectors glanced at me a couple of times (giving me an icy "Who the fuck are you?" look), their bubble felt so hermetically sealed that I found it difficult to even interrupt with "Excuse me, could I just grab my backpack behind you?" (Although after a few more awkward minutes, I did just that, because I really had to go.) Abramson seemed isolated by design.

So, yeah, Jill Abramson is not a warm person. The vibe she gives off is not… touchy-feely inclusive. (A New York media veteran recently described Abramson to me as "tone-deaf" and possibly "borderline Asperger's.")

At The New York Times, that was OK … until it wasn't.

What made it suddenly not OK, resulting in Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. ousting Abramson yesterday in a surprise move? After all, Abramson spent 17 years at the paper, having previously served as Washington bureau chief and managing editor, so it's not like her personality type and managerial tendencies were unknown.

The best answer so far might come from New York magazine's Gabriel Sherman, a longtime reader of the Times tea leaves, who early this morning offered his take in a post titled "Sulzberger Swings the Axe Again: Why the Times Publisher and Jill Abramson Were Doomed From the Start."

Bottom line: They didn't like each other. They never got along great. And Abramson's appointment to the top job in 2011 was hardly a shoo-in: "When Arthur picked Jill, it was by the slimmest margin," an insider told Sherman, suggesting that Abramson barely edged out Dean Baquet (who as of yesterday is the new Times executive editor).

There's been plenty of focus yesterday and today on Abramson's brusque, off-putting managerial style. "Arthur made the decision [to replace Abramson] because he believed that new leadership would improve some aspects of the management of the newsroom," a Times spokeswoman told my colleagues Nat Ives and Michael Sebastian yesterday.

But let's get real: Having the top editorial job at the Times is only partly about managing reporters and editors. A big chunk of the job involves upmanaging Arthur -- and deftly dealing with the fact that the Times remains that most peculiar of corporate beasts: a family-controlled shop.

One trick to upmanaging a difficult boss who has never really loved you is to make sure you're on good terms with the people whispering in his ear. If you and the boss are not natural, comfortable allies, then you seek support among his allies.

Only, as Sherman reports, Jill Abramson seems to have had difficulty even upmanaging-by-proxy, having butted heads with Sulzberger's hand-picked CEO, Mark Thompson, from the start. And she also didn't get along terribly well with her deputy Dean Baquet, who Sherman says is "well liked in the newsroom and well liked by Sulzberger."

The present Times-ian spin -- that Sulzberger intervened to rescue the newsroom from an ungracious boss -- seems a little silly. After all, the top boss of the Times from 2001-2003, Howell Raines, was famously deeply disliked in the newsroom, but that obviously didn't matter to Sulzberger until the Jayson Blair scandal made not just Raines, but the entire paper, look bad.

Sherman writes of "the vortex of speculation and a search for a single smoking gun" among Times Kremlinologists. But maybe it's just this simple: Arthur -- supposed champion of newsroom happiness -- just got sick of Jill. And Arthur's allies were sick of her too. (More on that undoubtedly to come.)

That's a timeworn narrative that lacks both juicy intrigue and a hero. But sometimes the truest telling, the most accurate story, is the most boring and obvious one.

Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.

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