former journalists discuss a profession in crisis

Archive for May, 2014|Monthly archive page

Abramson’s tenure at The Times: Baquet’s Comments Speak Volumes

In Blog on May 23, 2014 at 10:22 am

I have no inside knowledge of the workings of The New York Times. My husband was in the same high school class as ousted executive editor Jill Abramson at- the toney Fieldston School in Riverdale, a wealthy section of New York City. But he didn’t know her well.  And neither of us is chummy with folks at the newspaper who will give us the inside dope on what really happened, and whether Abramson was treated fairly or not. Lord knows, there’s been a lot of media ink spilled speculating about the reasons – including Abramson’s concerns that she was being paid less than her predecessors, and allegations that she was about to bring another editor on board equal in rank to her deputy, Dean Baquet, without making that clear to him.  But no account really has captured the straw that broke the camel’s back and pushed Abramson out the door.

What we do know is that throughout her tenure, Abramson’s people skills have been assessed and critiqued.  While I don’t have the inside skinny on this firing, I do know what it’s like to work in a newsroom, and how crucial management style can be to newsroom productivity and morale.  I thought many of the feelings I had about my former profession were unique to me, but when I wrote Out of the News, I discovered even journalism’s heavy hitters experienced the same lack of confidence about their work that I often felt.

For all their outward boldness, journalists, by and large, are very insecure.  That insecurity stems from a couple of factors.  The act of reporting and writing never gets easy.   In almost every other job, you achieve mastery with repetition.  An open-heart surgeon who does 200 surgeries a year is going to be much better than a surgeon who does ten. But that doesn’t hold true for journalism.  Yes, time and practice gives reporters a certain level of competency.  But every story offers a new challenge.  To write well, to avoid clichés and formulas, to be accurate and fair and understandable is difficult and the difficulty really doesn’t ease up when you get into the big leagues.

And reporters don’t measure success by a “satisfied” public or an achieved result.   How do you know when you write a good story?  In part, you know when you receive an award, but awards happen long after your work has been published.  Certainly, journalists can measure their effectiveness by the number of page views, or tweets their work inspires.

But those numbers are more about popularity than quality, and often have more to do with the subject matter than the reporter’s talent.   Beyonce’s domestic travails are going to beat out the problems in the Ukraine every time.

And while occasionally news stories will have a lot of impact, typically they don’t.  Lawyers can measure their success by the “wins” in court, or the size of the settlements their clients receive.  Health care workers can be judged by the lives they save or health they improve.

The public determines whether your lasagna or shoes or software are worth buying.  Public acclaim keeps the lights on in theaters and stadiums alike, sustaining actors, dancers, and athletes.

But journalism is different.

Reporters generally are not happy when the subjects of their work are extremely pleased, particularly if the subjects are politicians or executives or celebrities.  Praise makes them worry that they’ve been too easy on the people they’ve written about, or failed to present them honestly, or were deceived by their “spin.”

Reporters primarily look to their editors to assess their work.  But this craving for attention and praise from the folks in charge can be quite destabilizing when reporters feel they can’t “read” what the people in charge want, and when they get the sense that they aren’t measuring up.

I have no idea whether Abramson was a destabilizing editor, one who was quick to fault work, and slow to praise, who seemed to want more but wasn’t clear in what, exactly, the “more” was.

However, I was intrigued by a Politico story written more than a year ago. The story reportedly was based on conversations with about a dozen, mostly unnamed, former and current Times news staffers, who raised concerns about the management style of The Times’ first female executive editor. Reporter Dylan Byers made clear that staff acknowledged that Abramson was an extremely competent and talented professional.  But the story also cited complaints about Abramson not being exactly warm and fuzzy in the newsroom, and described one incident when she strongly rebuked a staffer in public.

One other detail stuck out in my memory.  Abramson, according to Byers’ sources, had met with her deputy Baquet and critiqued the paper for not being “buzzy” enough.  The meeting ended with Baquet storming out of the office, and slamming his hand against the wall in frustration.  “Buzzy” doesn’t give you a lot to work with.

When reporters don’t know how to please editors, they can get into terrible funks, overthinking pieces, unable to do their best work.  I’ve seen that happen in newsrooms. Heck, I’ve seen it happen to me.

Baquet last week was named to replace his boss.  His comments to the assembled Times staff are about the most telling remarks I’ve read that suggest some of the key factors that might have led to Abramson’s firing.

“Let’s take risks, let’s not beat each other up when we fail, let’s work together,” Baquet told his staff.  “Let’s not get paralyzed by guessing what Dean or anybody else wants.  Give it a shot.”

That doesn’t mean that Abramson was not the victim of sexism.  Editors typically don’t lose their jobs for their management style.  A “prominent reporter” who spoke to Ben McGrath of The New Yorker contended that “tough and abrasive” editors at The Times have been pretty common over the years:

“Tough and abrasive?” (a) Abe Rosenthal (1977-86), (b) Howell Raines (2001-03), (c) Max Frankel (1986-94), (d) Jill Abramson (2011-14), (e) all of the above. … Business is basically good, and the journalism is good, but the culture is bad,” the reporter continued. “But that describes a hundred and fifty years of the paper’s history. It’s always been sociopaths and lunatics running the place. Why step to Jill? People are genuinely upset about that.”

Was Abramson was held to a different standard because she’s a woman?  Probably.  Sexism may have made it easier for The Times to cite management style as a major factor in her dismissal, but if it means that all editors in the future – male and female — have to think about how they treat their staffs, that’s not a bad thing.

I don’t know if Abramson deserved to be shown the door.  But if his comments are any indication, Baquet – the paper’s first African-American executive editor — deserved to replace her.

Correspondents’ Dinner: Enough Already!

In Blog on May 2, 2014 at 10:34 pm

I will freely admit that I have never been invited to the annual dinner of the White House Correspondents’ Association.  I did once participate in a demonstration outside the hotel where the event was held, but our protest was directed at the President at the time, not the journalists in attendance.

And here's one more: Front page of the Washington Post Style section, May 3, 2014

And here’s one more: Front page of the Washington Post Style section, May 3, 2014

Here’s what I’m talking about.  The dinner hasn’t happened yet, and the Post, through its blogs and print editions, has run at least 14 stories and blogs about it.  I’m writing this on Friday, May 2.  Who knows what will be in tomorrow’s paper?

I am not including in that total, two substantive pieces on the work of Washington correspondents pegged to the upcoming dinner.  Paul Farhi profiled a correspondent for the McClatchy newspapers with limited access to the President, a backbencher in a press room where a lot of the attention goes to the high-profile journalists.  Erik Wemple analyzed another media outlet – Politico – and its effort to gauge the attitudes of the roughly 200 Washington correspondents.

So what does more than 7,000 words, and endless space for photos and even illustrations, get you?  Insights on this year’s performer host, Joel McHale, (1, 082 words); tips to the President for giving a well-received speech (1,633 words), and a feature story about the history of the dinner and how it evolved (1,738 words), not including a 783-word sidebar, which includes a timeline of dinner highs and lows.

Every facet of the dinner and parties seems to have been touched –  how party-goers will use the new Uber app and car service to get from place to place; a list of celebrities attending (the list alone took nearly 900 words); briefs on stars planning to attend who show up early in DC to do other things.  Post staffers wrote about Buzzfeed and Facebook offering an alternative party for those who don’t have an invitation to the dinner or wanted something different. They announced that the Post planned to offer diners a “twitter mirror” to immediately broadcast their selfies to the world. They described the menu and fretted about food items they couldn’t decipher.  They offered descriptions of the suites at three local luxury hotels, complete with pictures, where celebrities may be staying this weekend.

But wait, there’s more!  Readers learned about a journalist making a documentary about the dinner, who’s calling it “the biggest weekend in one of the world’s most important cities.”  Blogger Alexandra Petri discusses the “Nerd Prom “where all the faceless bylines flock moth-like around the visiting luminaries they have binge-watched on Netflix.”  We also received tips on surviving the parties.

The Post even takes the time, and space, to wonder whether there may be a “dinner backlash” this year, in the context of some of the excesses of previous years.  Bob Garfield, the co-host of NPR’s “On the Media” opines, “It’s embarrassing to continually be embarrassed.”

I am not going to take a cheap shot, and compare the extent of coverage of this event with the Post’s serious coverage of other issues.  A paper can be both frivolous and substantive.  But I do wonder, who does the Post believe is its audience for these stories?

And doesn’t this over-the-top attention really reinforce the notion that the news is what your editor cares about?