-So the New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson has been abruptly replaced, and quite possibly fired. The sudden change was announced by NYT Chairman, and scion of the company’s Ochs-Sulzberger founding dynasty, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Junior.
Abramson is being replaced by her deputy, Managing Editor Dean Baquet. As Publisher of the times Sulzberger was constitutionally able to make the change unilaterally, and without needing to first gain approval of his Board of Directors.
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Jill Abramson was the first female Editor of the New York Times in its history. Dean Baquet will now be its first ever African-American Editor. Both are important milestones, notwithstanding the controversies that swirled around both appointments. Abramson herself was promoted abruptly in September 2011, when Bill Keller was unceremoniously dumped three years ago.
Live by the sword, die by the sword; now it has happened to her as well. The precise reasons are not known to us, and perhaps even are unimportant. Large companies make sudden changes in management, from time to time, for all kinds of reasons, some good and some even down to fairly petty things, too, including simply personal dislike.
But when it is a national media company that is involved, one that is also struggling increasingly with a disappointing profit record in recent years, albeit with a fair balance sheet, as the world has gone increasingly digital, it is inevitably news. The knives are out, if nothing else, as the NYT sits at the apex of the news media food chain so anything it does is pretty much fair game for commentators of all stripes.
Reports of clashes between the strong personality of Abramson and Sulzberger have been circulating, together with rumours she was also trying to hire Janine Gibson, from the Guardian, to co-manage the news room with Managing Editor Dean Baquet with whom she is also said to have clashed.
As news continues to steadily drip-out about the lead-up to Abramson’s firing, speculation about the reasons behind Sulzberger’s decision has indeed, at one level, focused on Abramson’s own recent attempts to hire Janine Gibson, editor-in-chief of Guardian US, to act as Managing Editor alongside Baquet.
On Wednesday night Gibson, who was recently appointed Editor-in-Chief of the Guardian’s global website, theguardian.com, confirmed to the Guardian itself that she had been approached, saying “The New York Times talked to me about the role of joint Managing Editor, but I said no.”
Then the issue of pay equity for women at the New York Times has been touted as another potential cause of friction, with Abramson herself even purportedly being paid much less than her predecessor Bill Keller, according to the New Yorker.
Speculation has also surrounded her relations with the new New York Times CEO Mark Thompson, who came from the BBC and is said to have infringed on her turf at certain points. Moreover his arrival at the New York Times coincided at just the moment of the Jimmy Saville scandal at the BBC. this may have led to only
tepid support for him from an aggressive Editor seeking to understand Thompson’s own potential role in that scandal, from a leadership point of view, while he was at the BBC as the scandal began to unfold, in its reporting.
Finally, almost certainly Arthur Sulzberger got more than he bargained for when he promoted Abramson; if he thought we would get a compliant Editor who would give him the level of attention he likely demands, and probably also deserves.
Stepping back a little however, the macro picture may gives us more clues as to Sulzberger’s action. In 2013 the New York Times made a net profit of just US$65 million on revenues of US$1.6 billion. For the first quarter of 2014 the company made a net profit of just US$1.7 million on revenues of US$205 million, about flat compared to its previous year and in what is of course traditionally a quiet quarter for the advertising industry.
Nevertheless with a market capitalisation of US$2.2 billion currently, its shares are trading now at US$15. Whilst the shares are well up on their recession low, they are still only at the same price as they were six years ago. Except for some worryingly large pension fund obligations the company is at least basically debt free on a net basis, so it is holding its own for a moment which gives it still some time while it seeks to define its digital future.
For any business facing attacks to its traditional modus operandum, from relentless changes in digital technology, and especially for the the New York Times these are reasons enough for skittish managements and Boards to demand personnel changes. Then any personal failings amongst senior level relationships can just become magnifying glasses, intensifying differences under such high levels of stress.