Geneva Overholser on Abramson and Sulzberger: The Two Who Couldn’t Tango

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This guest post was written by senior fellow Geneva Overholser. Follow the discussion on her personal blog.

The reasons for Jill Abramson’s firing as editor of The New York Times are no doubt many and complex. But one thing is clear: the editor-publisher relationship failed, spectacularly.

This classic journalistic partnership, when it works, is like a good marriage. Full of successes and challenges, warmth and tension, it requires constant open communication and full-hearted dedication on the part of both parties. Also loyalty. A good editor ensures that the publisher is never blindsided. A good publisher ensures sufficient editorial independence to do good journalism. And a newsroom relies on believing that the two have confidence in one another. The successful combinations are legendary: Punch and Abe, Katharine and Ben. (I learned how essential this partnership is when I was fortunate enough, as editor of the Des Moines Register, to work with publisher Charlie Edwards.)

What happened in this case, according to the publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., is that his editor, Abramson, had to leave because of her management style. But, really: Editors are famed for being difficult. Every journalist has stories about newsroom leaders throwing fits – or, better, potted plants. Hot tempers, arrogance, polarization: these have practically been job requirements for editors. I’m not saying this is a good thing. I’m saying that it’s striking that we’d become sensitive to the unpleasantness only when a woman makes it to the top.

Actually, though, there IS cause for newsrooms to be even unhappier today than usual. They are being made to change (though not quickly enough), and change is difficult. So, if it has always been true that newsrooms were fertile ground for anyone seeking anonymous gripes, it is even truer now. Indeed, my word to wise publishers would be to be wary today of the universally loved editor. He’s probably not doing what you need him to do.

Of course, the editor does have a managerial responsibility to the publisher: To ensure that the staff is doing good work. In this, Abramson seems to have succeeded. Her “management style” became a firing offense only because the editor-publisher relationship was broken.

Similarly with another, more serious issue cited in the aftermath of the firing: pay equity. If Abramson was in fact paid less than her predecessors and perhaps even her deputies, this is indeed a worrisome matter — and one that an editor and publisher with confidence in one another would have been determined to work out. That she hired a lawyer to represent her in this matter shows just how deeply dysfunctional the publisher-editor relationship had become.

Then there are the reports of conflicts over business issues. When Mark Thompson was hired as chief executive in 2012, the already existing challenges of leading journalism through the dangerous shoals of business experimentation grew even more complex. Remember that newspapers are strange enterprises in that they have as a central element a unit whose behavior may, when it is at its best, be inimical to the financial fortunes of the business. Add in the fact that far-reaching innovation is now essential to the very existence of these endangered species. Imagine the tensions that arise naturally, then, if the main business executive and the main editorial executive are both doing their jobs. Only a publisher (and chairman of the board) in open communication with each, confident of both, could make this work.

What’s striking to me in this regard is the story of the effort to hire the Guardian’s Janine Gibson as an additional managing editor. This seems to have caught Managing Editor Dean Baquet by (understandably unpleasant) surprise. But both Thompson and Sulzberger had met with Gibson as well as Abramson, and apparently were involved in the effort to hire her. Had the publisher and editor never discussed how this matter would be presented to the managing editor? This is believable only in the utter absence of communication that a failed relationship implies.

Finally, of course: the gender question. It isn’t news that the newsroom culture is proudly male. Women have long struggled to figure out how to thrive in it. So it’s no wonder that Sulzberger’s vague assertion about management style opened the door to outrage. Imagine Abe Rosenthalhiring a coach to help him with his management style! Imagine if Abramson had been the one to slam her hand against the newsroom wall, as Baquet reportedly did after a disagreement with her (with no apparent dint to his reputation for being unfailingly polite and amiable).

I am happy about one side effect of this sad affair, and that is the outpouring of powerful pieces by women documenting the challenges facing women in journalism – and showing how meaningful it was for women in the Times newsroom to have a woman at the top. See, for example,Amanda Hess, Rebecca Traister, Ann Friedman, Susan Glasser and Rachel Sklar. With any luck, these beautifully crafted and deeply felt pieces will be helpful to the next person who decides to “give a woman a chance.”

It is said that Sulzberger was torn when he named Abramson editor, thinking perhaps he should have picked Baquet instead. Of all the unknowables here, this one rings especially true. It would explain why these two key relationships — publisher-editor, and editor-managing editor – were doomed. In the end, Abramson may have felt very much as if she were standing between two people who just wanted her gone.

(Full disclosure: I know Sulzberger, Abramson and Baquet, and admire them all.)

Click here to read Geneva Overholser’s personal blog.