former journalists discuss a profession in crisis

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.

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