When straight-keeper in chief Jill Abramson gets the tabloid treatment

Jill Abramson. ()
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Has Jill Abramson, executive editor of The New York Times, "lost the newsroom"?

A story posted last night by Politico's Dylan Byers characterizes Abramson as a woman on the verge of a newsroom breakdown. The culprit is her personality, but also, to be fair, the way that personality has manifested itself in a few decisions, none of which were particularly key decisions.

Today, the story has readers charging sexist bias, thin sourcing, and a certain naivete about how the great big newsrooms work. I don't think any of these is really applicable to Byers' reporting, but this article does speak volumes about all three issues.

(It also speaks to the particular place of Politico in the media ecosystem, and its exceptional appetite for windy indictments of the Times and Washington Post. But that's another story.)

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I was talking to a few friends about some of Abramson's predecessors. Abe Rosenthal ran the newsroom from 1969 to 1986, a time that was transformative for the paper in almost precisely the opposite way more recent years have been. National stories like Vietnam and the civil rights movement had made the newspaper the national Paper of Record, and subscriptions and newsstand sales had never been better. The newsprint model was really working, and increasingly newspapers were being asked to expand and become the centerpiece of the national conversation on every topic imaginable, from science to medicine to home decor to health to real estate to fashion to food, at a scale scarcely imagined before. The Times was expected to cover everything, and grew to respond to the demand.

In those challenging but spiritually rewarding times, Rosenthal, according to one friend of mine who was there, "had the newsroom by head, neck and balls."

Hardly a description of a well-loved editor, and no doubt Rosenthal was reviled by more than the dozen-plus number of newsroom employees who spoke to Byers to say that Abramson was both a deft and talented editor and sometimes impossible to work with personally.

Rosenthal died in 2006. The epitaph on his tombstone reads "HE KEPT THE PAPER STRAIGHT." (Incidentally that's an observation many gay Times employees and AIDS activists of the 1980s well remember making themselves, even if they meant it a little differently from how it's intended.)

Rosenthal was at the head of the ship when the newspaper published the Pentagon Papers, and it's probably safe to say the newsroom was glad that such a warrior was representing them when the Nixon administration leveled its vicious attacks on the paper afterward.

Keeping the paper straight is what he was remembered for after his death, and it's what he was admired for during his life, even by those who suffered under his dictatorial style and sometimes gruesome attacks.

The point is it's not really the case that the person who runs the New York Times is expected to "have" the newsroom in the first place.

Howell Raines was not expected to. He was explicitly part of a bid to change the culture of the Times newsroom when he was brought on. But several very public mistakes made losing the newsroom an issue for him. The Jayson Blair scandal is often cited but the ongoing coverage of the Masters at the Augusta National Golf Club was, at the time, highly controversial, as were his transformations of several newsbeats into weird hybrids of Times sententiousness and "New Journalism" storytelling techniques. (It was under Howell Raines that the crime beat started, at times, to sound like the voice-overs on the maudlin true-crime television show "City Confidential.")

Finally, that lack of confidence made him unable to do what he was hired to do, in the opinion of his master, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. But it's worth noting that, according to published accounts, it wasn't until that newsroom rebellion reached the ears of Sulzberger's fellow family members, controlling shareholders in the company, that he was removed.

Bill Keller followed him. So it was obviously a big part of the mission to win the newsroom back. Keller did. At first because of the stark contrast he provided to Raines' style. But later, he came to own that newsroom loyalty, as the paper moved from the dark ages, and the brink of financial ruin, to become a digital powerhouse with a real, scalable future. (I know this is a controversial assessment, but, again, that's another story.)

But the ten-year anomaly created by the Jayson Blair scandal is, really, a closed chapter now. It closed with Keller's exit. Short memories will perhaps confuse the job description of editor in chief of The New York Times with the particular imperatives created by Abramson's immediate predecessors. I don't think it's friend in chief of the rank-and-file or even the masthead.

There are different styles of management. If Abramson's is not one of nurturing, I'm not sure that offends the people who spoke to Byers for his article because she's a woman, so much as because it's what they've come to expect. They will need to realize that it's no longer part of the program.

It's also important to note that even when smoke was coming out of Rosenthal's ears, there were other rabbis in the newsroom reporters and editors were used to seeking out, who created little shelters where complaints both useless and worthy, ideas that were tentative and not yet ready for Rosenthal's judgment, could be submitted.

Why, 18 months into her editorship, does the Politico story appear just now? For what it's worth, I have probably heard at least a dozen people at the Times complain about Abramson's bedside manner since she was promoted to executive editor. But something has happened recently which Abramson herself has acknowledged: The cost-savings at the Times, achieved in a recent round of buyouts, included one strategy that was doubtless correct but which had real consequences for the paper.

In a talk at New York University in late February, this is how Abramson characterized the moves:

My strategy in approaching, first the voluntary buyouts, and then some layoffs, was that we were at a point in our evolution and in making the digital transition successfully where, some of the top jobs in the newsroom we sort of could no longer afford. They're great people, they're incredibly talented, they're Times people to the core, they do have amazing institutional memory, but in some ways, they were editors of editors. We just had a lot of layers. The newsroom now, you need to have direct reports of all kinds, and that's just an extra layer that we can't afford, and I questioned whether we still needed some of those jobs. It's painful, it's horrible. These are people I love seeing in the office every day.

What she didn't address was the role those editors played. They were those shelters, that layer of high-level editorial management; notably John Geddes and Bill Schmidt, who took buyouts in January, but stayed on to help Abramson with the masthead transitions she was authoring, and were mobbed with admirers at an April 9 farewell upstairs at Sardi's.

Geddes, for one, had worked through every phase of executive editor. Whoever was running the newsroom, neither ever "lost" it. They were part of a complementary arrangement that allowed the executive editor to make big, difficult decisions and wield real authority while other top editors cajoled, comforted, inspired the newsroom to take the bit. In his memo to staff announcing his exit, Geddes wrote words that were a part of the newsroom mantra when dealing with difficult top editors:

We know that our vaunted pedestal is really the achievement of those who came before us, and our chief charge is to build on their legacy. While our readers and our colleagues — you —are the ultimate jury, I’ve tried over the last 15 years on the masthead to do my best to help figure out how we marshal the resources to cover the news, develop one another’s talents and secure as firm a hold as we can on our digital future.

They're words that are as likely to come from the pen of any Times executive editor of the last 50 years, but coming from Geddes they are like a reminder of what everyone is doing in that building. Leave the paper, because this editor in chief is "brusque," or even mean? How ridiculous, how short-sighted! What a small view of what the Times is, and to whom it really belongs.

Abramson has admitted that her shuffling of the masthead will take a while to settle down. I think those roles that the likes of Geddes and Schmidt occupied are likely to develop organically on their own, and may require some managing editors to go into her office and have fights with her.

Is that Dean Baquet? He was a popular choice for the job Abramson got, and looking back on his career, he's been a historic friend to his newsrooms. His exit from the Los Angeles Times won him national recognition in the media industry for his defense of his reporting staff against the depredations of the Tribune Company's disastrous ownership made him a legend among reporters and editors, though he already had been. The big news when he got the gig in L.A. in 2005: He was a "reporter's editor."

Is it surprising, then, that Baquet is the on-the-record voice in Byers' article? Not to me. And I don't interpret it as sour grapes—an opportunity to participate in an article that seemed to expose weaknesses in the woman who got the job he didn't, precisely the weaknesses for which Baquet will never be accused. It could be argued (I have argued it on Twitter) that Baquet bungled the interview from a P.R. point of view. I can't speak to his motives.

But more substantially what I see in it is evidence that Baquet was thought sufficient as a sort-of newsroom representative on the masthead, to bridge the inevitable gap between firm leadership and happy troops that the paper will likely have to weather for a little while while the dust settles on some of the long-serving, beloved leaders who have held those positions over decades of management.

Have we left out the fact that Abramson is the first woman editor of the paper? Yes, so far, and deliberately. (At least in part it is because while I was working on this, I knew others were at work producing much more articulate arguments, and, of course, Emily Bell over at The Guardian has done it brilliantly right here.)

I don't think it's particularly interesting to attack the Politico article on this point. Dictatorial editors of all stripes are written about rather routinely, male and female. I have the curse, being an editor, of reading finished reports as raw copy, but it comes in handy. A few copyedits here or there would have absolved Byers of most of these criticisms and left them on the doorstep of his anonymous sources instead.

It would have been useful if he'd mentioned that Baquet was up for Abramson's job. It would have been useful if he'd given us a breakdown of where these sources were speaking from. If Byers' reporting was conducted carefully, then he spoke to women and men, found people who have been critical of previous editors and ones who had been loyal, found people across several bureaus of the paper and working in different capacities, he'd have spoken to people at all levels of the organization. And if he had, then I would have made him say so, in a broad characterization of the anonymous sources he used for the piece.

All this is just to say that the article, though poorly edited, isn't the real problem. Instead we have a real cultural artifact here: The question of whether expectations of women leaders are different from those of men. (Again, go read that Emily Bell piece, right now.) That comes through clearly in Byers' story. In fact, the anecdotes he reports, for the first time, and which really have been the talk of the newsroom for weeks, are the chief grist today for conversations about whether Abramson's style is to be deprecated or revered.

Abramson did not speak to Byers. But she's spoken a lot about her management style before. Back in November, at a conference organized by Business Insider, she told us how she wanted her tenure to be remembered:

"I want people to say that I protected and expanded the depth and breadth of our news report," she said, "and some version of what [former Times executive editor] Abe Rosenthal said he wanted on his tombstone was that he kept the paper straight. It's not just the paper now, but I want them to think I kept the place straight."

Correction, or clarification: I've modified the dates for when Abe Rosenthal "ran the newsroom," for reasons too technical to get into here. An earlier version said "1977 to 1988." With thanks to an eagle-eyed reader.