NEW YORK -- This was not the way Dean Baquet was supposed to take the reins at The New York Times.
When Baquet, 57, moved from the Times' Washington bureau to New York in 2011, following Jill Abramson's promotion to executive editor, he immediately became the likely successor. But it was only after Abramson's historic run as the paper's first female top editor was over that Baquet's historic term as the paper's first African-American editor could begin. And Times staffers expected Abramson, 60, wouldn't be going anywhere for several more years.
The careful succession plans were thrown into utter disarray Wednesday after publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. informed senior editors, and later the entire staff, that Abramson was out and Baquet would assume the top job. Reaction among staffers ranged from shocked to stunned, and the Baquet era kicked off amid rampant speculation over exactly why Abramson got the ax.
It’s not that Abramson was adored in the newsroom. To the contrary, her brusque manner has been well documented, from a 2011 New Yorker profile, to a much-discussed (and criticized) Politico report last year on sagging newsroom morale.
“People were not under any impression, from their own experience, and just from looking around, that the newsroom was considered a happy and smooth-running place under Jill,” one Times staffer told The Huffington Post. Still, the staffer added, “everyone was stunned” by the news.
The Huffington Post reported that Baquet turned down recent advances from Bloomberg News, a decision that surprised no one given the assumption that, if he waited just a few more years, he'd become the Times executive editor.
Baquet joined the Times in 1990, after reporting and editing stints at other papers in Chicago and New Orleans, and rose to national editor. He headed west in 2000 to become managing editor of the Los Angeles Times and eventually its top editor. He returned after a falling out with management there to become The New York Times Washington bureau chief, and next, Abramson's second-in-command.
Abramson has professed her love for the Times and, in the past, described the paper as "religion" in her family, growing up on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Just last month, she mentioned she had a Times tattoo, a permanent reminder of her devotion to the paper.
Even some newsroom critics might find fault with how the Times unceremoniously fired an executive so loyal to the paper. The Times immediately changed its masthead. Abramson, unlike her predecessor Bill Keller, will not transition easily into a columnist role at the paper.
Capital's Joe Pompeo reported that national editor Alison Mitchell suggested in a meeting Wednesday "that Abramson's firing wouldn't sit well with a broad swath of female Times journalists who saw her as a role model."
Baquet is widely admired in the newsroom and has an easygoing management style. But he'll have some work ahead of him in handling the most jarring management move since the 2003 sacking of executive editor Howell Raines in the wake of the Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal.
Baquet, for his part, told those gathered in the newsroom Wednesday that he’d “listen” to them and be “engaged” in their work.
Privately, Baquet told some Times staffers Wednesday that the relationship between Abramson and Sulzberger had been fraying for some time, according to a staffer familiar with the discussion who is unauthorized to speak publicly.
Such tensions, unsurprisingly, played out largely behind the scenes.
The Times reported Wednesday that Baquet was recently "angered" over Abramson's decision to hire The Guardian's Janine Gibson in a co-managing editor role. That potential move, the Times reported, "escalated the conflict between them and rose to the attention of Mr. Sulzberger, who was already concerned about her style of newsroom management."
In a staff memo, Sulzberger wrote that the appointment of Baquet “comes at a time when the newsroom is about to embark on a significant effort to transition more fully to a digital-first reality and where, across the organization, we are all learning to adapt to the rapid pace of change in our business.”
The shakeup comes a week after Arthur Gregg Sulzberger, a Times metro reporter and the publisher’s son, completed an internal report on the Times "digital-first transition" that will undoubtedly be looked at more closely in light of Abramson's ouster.
Baquet isn't a stranger to tumultuous newsrooms.
On Nov. 7, 2006, he stood atop a desk in the Los Angeles Times newsroom and gave a rousing speech in the face of continued budget cuts -- a stance that resulted in his firing. He may want to dust off that Election Day farewell, a bit of journalistic lore that's surrounded him and may be applicable to his new challenge.
"You have to keep going," Baquet said at the time. "Just keep making this a great newspaper. We have great traditions here. That's the stuff you can do for me."