Why did Sulzberger hire Abramson?

Her style never suited him. He got exactly what was advertised.

As the fallout from Jill Abramson’s abrupt dismissal as executive editor of The New York Times on Wednesday continues to reverberate among the media commentariat, the blowback against Times Chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. shows little sign of slackening. Yesterday Sulzberger felt the need to rebut the widespread accusation that Abramson was canned, at least in part, because she was negotiating for a compensation package in line with those of her predecessors. Nothing of the kind, Sulzberger maintained. Abramson was let go because of issues pertaining to her “management” of the newsroom.

This seems absurd. Sulzberger understood exactly what he was getting. Even before she landed the top editorial post, Abramson’s managerial style was recognized to have more in common with old-school editors who stomped on toes and didn’t care how loud you squealed so long as the story got done right—something at which she excelled. Abramson cut her teeth in journalism under Steven Brill, the founder and editor of The American Lawyer magazine and Court TV, among other media ventures. The stories of Brill’s epic rages and his demanding and at times demeaning management style are legendary. While Abramson never operated at that level of shock and awe, there is undeniably a strain of Brillian DNA in her editorial style.

To her supporters and admirers, of which there are many, her abrupt banishment was just another example of the pervasive gender bias in the upper rungs of media management. While Abramson was often criticized as being condescending, brusque, and high-handed, those same qualities in a man, so the complaint goes, are lauded as being tough, demanding, and self-assured.

So why did Sulzberger hire her in the first place? If there was ever a believer in the modern, kinder, and more inclusive management style, it’s Arthur Sulzberger, for whom team-building exercises, mission statements, and leadership retreats are a longstanding passion. If Abramson’s formative management model was that of the demanding martinet, Sulzberger’s was the band-of-brothers ethic of Outward Bound. The fact that Abramson reportedly had to retain an outside consultant to help refine her management style (a Sulzbergian touch if ever there was one) probably tells us what we need to know about her demise.

In a way, Sulzberger’s choice of Abramson is part of an ongoing yin-yang pattern during his tenure. Sulzberger’s initial hire as executive editor in 1994 was the low-key Joe Lelyveld. In 2001, when Sulzberger wanted to shake up a snoozy newsroom, Lelyveld was succeeded by the dynamic and headstrong Howell Raines. After Raines’ pugnacious style (as well as assorted reporting scandals) proved toxic to newsroom morale, Sulzberger moved him out in favor of the mild-mannered Bill Keller, who had narrowly lost out to Raines previously for the top job. When Keller’s tenure was up in 2011, Sulzberger again opted for a more polarizing figure to lead the newsroom, choosing Abramson over the runner up, the popular Dean Baquet, only to reverse course and promote Baquet less than three years later. Baquet, much like Keller before him, promises a more “humane” approach to newsroom management.

In part these gyrations can be attributed to the increasingly threatening environment the Times has been operating in over the last decade or so. In March, an internal report obtained by BuzzFeed, noted that the Times’ digital operations, a key to the company’s long-term survival, are lagging far behind both new-media rivals and other old-media players. Like many established corporations, the Times, despite all the confabs, mission statements, and jaw-boning, struggled to adapt to the digital age, wallowing for years in the tide like a newspaper company with a technology section bolted on to the side.

Given this, it could be concluded that Abramson wasn’t allowed a customary executive reign at the Times—strive ‘til 65 followed by a cushy slot on the editorial page—because she wasn’t savvy enough to navigate the paper’s transition to a digitized universe. Except by all accounts Abramson was fairly tech savvy, far more than her successor, Baquet. In fact, under Abramson’s leadership, the newsroom finally seemed to be finding its digital way. Still, Baquet’s ascension may confirm that the Times executive editor is no longer expected to be a principal architect of the company’s digital platform—which wouldn’t be the worst idea in the world; Abramson’s effort to bring The Guardian’s Janine Gibson in as her managing editor for digital—another reported flashpoint in her relationship with Sulzberger and Baquet—suggests as much.

As Sulzberger fights to preserve America’s last newspaper dynasty, he seems to be placing a greater value on having a team player handle the print legacy, one that will keep the peace, keep up standards, and avoid creating distractions while he focuses on the horizon. The company has spent the past several years stripping down and jettisoning assets deemed superfluous to its new identity—often at a substantial financial loss. Now Sulzberger’s stewardship approaches the critical passage. He will either successfully complete the company’s transformation into digital media or preside as his family joins the Grahams, the Chandlers, the Bancrofts, and other ink-and-paper relics in the archives. However disruptive the fallout surrounding Abramson’s dismissal grows, it’s small brew compared to the task ahead. And in the end, who would argue that Sulzberger isn’t entitled to pick his own crew for this last leg of the journey?

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Douglas McCollam is a contributing editor to CJR. Tags: , , ,