This week, Politico published a largely anonymously-sourced hit piece on New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson, charging that she is blunt, demoralizing, condescending, and is “on the verge of losing the support of the newsroom.” Critics, myself included, asked whether this piece would have been written and edited in this particular way if its subject were a man. But perhaps a more useful question: Is there anything that could have turned this piece from a string of complaints about the boss into a valuable piece of media reporting? I’ve got a few suggestions.
Have a peg. If staffers have been complaining about Abramson for 18 months, why air their anonymous complaints now? Maybe it’s because of the most recent round of buyouts and layoffs, which took place in January? That might be helpful information for readers.
Bring up the history. As many people have pointed out, previous Times editor Howell Raines was reviled, and Abramson’s predecessor, Bill Keller, wasn’t universally beloved, either. Recounting the history of unpopular bosses at the NYT—and even quoting journalists who have worked under several regimes—would have framed those anonymous quotes much better and helped combat the sense that the Politico piece wouldn’t have been written if Abramson were a man.
Acknowledge that sexism might play a role. A single quote from managing editor Dean Baquet—he called the critiques of Abramson an “unfair caricature”—isn’t really sufficient. At least devote a paragraph to the issue, not just to defuse criticism or, God forbid, ensure your female readers aren’t alienated. The sexism angle is newsworthy given the amount of press Sheryl Sandberg’s tome on women and leadership has received as of late.
Contextualize it. Explain why “the support of the newsroom” is so important. Are these disgruntled employees considering other jobs because of their boss’s attitude? Is the organization producing lower-quality work? A recent study rated “newspaper reporter” the worst of 200 jobs surveyed, and while New York Times reporters have it better than those at a lot of newspapers in America, the study is probably worth mentioning in an article about an unhappy newsroom. Odds are it’s not all the boss’s fault.
Make it a larger story. If the off-the-record quotes are feeling a little thin, it may help to expand the scope. This could have been a piece about how, in the era of mass layoffs, executive editors across the country are struggling to keep the support of the editors and reporters they manage. Abramson is certainly not the only executive in America facing this problem.
Stack up the facts. Compare the on-the-record information with the off-the-record quotes. Are they telling two completely different stories? If so, one “To be sure…” paragraph of caveats may be insufficient.