Great googly-moogly, newspaper fans! According to this piece in Politico today, New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson has "lost the newsroom." Where did she leave the newsroom? What was the last place she remembers putting the newsroom? Did she leave it over by this stack of Pulitzer prizes that her paper won under her leadership? No, apparently the "newsroom" was last seen at the Muji store downstairs, buying sweaters and griping about how "impossible" she is, what with all of her being the boss and what-not.
Yes, folks, there is "turbulence" at The New York Times these days. Which is to be expected, as it is 2013, and they are all trying to run a "newspaper," which they ideally would not be doing in the current climate, in which running a newspaper is a pretty terrible career choice. Unless of course, you want to use your newspapers to parrot political propaganda for as long as you can milk its declining circulation rates, in which case go right ahead, Koch Brothers, and acquire the Tribune Company -- print journalism's equivalent of the cursed tiki statue from "The Brady Bunch."
According to Politico's collection of anonymous sources, Abramson is apparently "stubborn" and "condescending" and "difficult to work with" and "impossible" and "on the verge of losing the support of the newsroom" because of her "temperament." In fairness, the piece relates how Abramson was absent from the Times headquarters while the "paper was undergoing its most recent round of buyouts," choosing instead to attend the Sundance Film Festival "in the days leading up to the buyout deadline." Later, she was in Cuba "trying to obtain accreditation for the paper" while the newsroom was bidding adieu to their bought-out colleagues.
Arguably, this isn't a particularly courageous way to lead during a time of turmoil -- though believe me, I've heard of worse treatment. I've been told that when Pulitzer Prize author David Hoffman received his buyout notice from the Washington Post, it came in the form of buyout papers being left on his chair, a Post-it note inscribed "Sign this" affixed thereon. Weeks ago, Tumblr's David Karp cashiered a team of employees working on the blogging service's "Storyboard" project, offering a weird statement in which he praised those employees for their work but then announced they were all "moving on," as if he were simply passively participating in the natural evolution of things instead of actively making the decision to send a group of people to the unemployment line.
Abramson's "absence" is sort of a recurring theme:
"When Jill is engaged, no one was better. She's an incredible journalist," one former staffer said. "But as often as not, she can be totally absent. There are days when she acts like she just doesn't care."
There's no improving on Forbes' media reporter Jeff Bercovici's quip in response:
So if Abramson was absent or aloof during that period of time, sure, that's on her. If she had been in the newsroom on those occasions she could have ... you know ... done some stuff.
But this is only one small part of the "turbulence" that has turned The New York Times' newsroom emo. There are plenty of other anonymous gripes on offer. For instance, one source complains that Abramson is "not a naturally charismatic person." Because Abramson being prettier is probably half the battle, in terms of keeping the newsroom happy. Another complains that they were brusquely cut off at a meeting when they questioned the wisdom of changing the name of the International Herald Tribune to the International New York Times. As Dylan Byers, who authored the piece, relates, "That issue has been settled, she said. Why would we even bother getting into that?" Sounds like a real ordeal that would be devastatingly hard to get over. (Who knew that the name of the International Herald Tribune was the hill that anyone in the world wanted to die on?)
According to one source, the situation at The New York Times is "beginning to reach Howell Raines-like proportions," referring to the dreadful period of stewardship in which serial plagiarizer Jayson Blair torpedoed the Times' credibility. "Others cautioned against such a drastic comparison," reports Byers, because yeah, you think?
As I read this story last night, one anecdote in particular perplexed me greatly:
In one meeting, Abramson was upset with a photograph that was on the homepage. Rather than asking for a change to be made after the meeting, she turned to the relevant editor and, according to sources with knowledge of the meeting, said bluntly, "I don't know why you're still here. If I were you, I would leave now and change the photo."
I am genuinely bewildered as to what Abramson has done wrong here. What am I supposed to find so appalling? This seems to me to be bog-standard boss-giving-orders stuff. Whatever source related this incident desperately needs a fainting couch.
Naturally, the specter of institutional sexism hovers over the piece. It can't not, considering the piece is mostly anonymous whiners griping about how their female boss seems to believe she has the right to give them orders. It seems up for debate whether the sexist vibe is the fault of Byers, or merely of the gaggle of anonymous backbiters he's collected in this compendium of complaint.
On Twitter, critics seem to want to put the blame on Byers, but I'm not entirely sure the shoe fits. The truth is that Byers is the person in the piece who provides the sensible defense of Abramson, pointing out that during her brief tenure, the paper has amassed that pile of Pulitzers, has recently delivered ace coverage of the Boston Marathon attacks, published a breathtakingly gorgeous story called "Snowfall" that set new standards for web-native content, and, as Byers notes, consistently continues to publish "some of the most impressive and informative journalism offered on the American newsstand."
On the other hand, Byers does himself no favors by incorporating a comment from Ken Auletta about Abramson's "nasal car honk" of a voice, standing it next to this contention: "It gives her the impression of being distant, almost bored." I've no idea if that's Auletta's assessment or Byers'. Presumably it's not the assessment of any of his Times sources, because otherwise it would be noted that way. As such, it's a completely superfluous comment that doesn't speak to any of the actual newsroom complaints.
But that's not the part of this story that's throwing the largest part of the overall sexist vibe. "Every editor has a story about how she’s blown up in a meeting," says one source. But the only editor who is actually on the record with such a story is Times managing editor Dean Baquet, who is apparently some sort of unhinged rage monster:
One Monday morning in April, Jill Abramson called Dean Baquet into her office to complain. The executive editor of the New York Times was upset about the paper's recent news coverage -- she felt it wasn't "buzzy" enough, a source there said -- and placed blame on Baquet, her managing editor. A debate ensued, which gave way to an argument.
Minutes later, Baquet burst out of Abramson's office, slammed his hand against a wall, and stormed out of the newsroom.
Baquet confirmed that this happened, and expressed his regrets that the "newsroom" had to "see one of its leaders have a tantrum." Apparently however, this is a recurring theme. Later in the piece, we learn that while Baquet was Washington bureau chief, he "got so upset when a story didn't make the front page that he drove his fist through the wall."
Sounds like a real charming guy who doesn't need therapy at all! To his credit, Baquet goes on at length in defense of Abramson. At one point, he addresses the notion of institutional sexism directly:
"I think there's a really easy caricature that some people have bought into, of the bitchy woman character and the guy who is sort of calmer," he said.
Ha, well, rest assured, Dean, that thanks to the tales of wall-fisting exploits, this is definitely not the portrait that has emerged!
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