The New York Times has been called a lot of things in the 160 years of its existence, but unpredictable, rash, and confusing are rarely among them. But those were all adjectives swimming around Twitter after it was announced that chief executive Janet Robinson had been asked to resign. The former school teacher and 28-year veteran of The Times Janet Robinson still has two weeks on the job, so the departure seems abrupt at best. Robinson sounded grateful and polite in her goodbye note (a $4.5 million one-year consulting agreement comes with her exit) save her use of the phrase "mixed emotions," as did her boss Arthur J. Sulzberger, the chairman of The New York Times Company. But there was no fooling the gawking media types on Twitter. "Sulzberger fired Robinson," according to The New York Times' own report (although not until the ninth paragraph), as Financial Times columnist John Gapper tweeted. The graf in the paper of record's full coverage of the event does sound awfully suspicious:
Last Friday, Mr. Sulzberger called a meeting with Ms. Robinson on the 15th floor of the company’s Manhattan headquarters. He raised the issue of installing a different type of leadership at the company, according to people familiar with the meeting who declined to be identified discussing confidential company business.
And, predictably, the following sentence reads, "Both Ms. Robinson and Mr. Sulzberger declined to comment." So the rumors swirled, including at The Times' biggest rival, The Wall Street Journal, which included this paragraph suggesting the Sulzberger family which controls The Times pushed Robinson out:
The company's struggles during the worst of the downturn had prompted some members of the Sulzberger family to question whether Ms. Robinson was the right person to guide the company in a digital world, according to people briefed on the family's thinking.
To sum up and paraphrase, the scores of reactions we read to the news of Sulzberger's confusing move all converged on a few of points.
Janet Robinson did a fine job, but it was time for a change. As the vignette of last Friday's mysterious meeting of higher ups suggests, the company's board was probably eager to stir the pot. This is curious from the company we're more accustomed to letting things just simmer but not necessarily unconscionable. Forbes's media writer Jeff Bercovici remembers having lunch with The Times Company's now former CEO just three months ago. "Robinson certainly didn’t give the vibe of a person who was getting ready to trade the challenges of running the world’s most important newspaper for a life of mid-morning tee times," he writes. Bercovici is also careful to explain how "since that lunch, the economic situation for The Times (and the newspaper industry as a whole) has deteriorated somewhat, leading to a third-quarter drop in ad revenue of 8.8 percent." Is that Robinson's fault? Who knows, but the company's continued struggle to keep up with the fast-moving new media industry is certainly cause for concern.
Janet Robinson didn't get along with with her bosses. This seems unlikely, and it's also hard to measure. We don't know if Sulzberger and the board didn't like Robinson's personality or didn't work well with her. Given that she helmed the company for nearly seven years, a quarter of her time there, one would imagine that she got along quite well with her co-workers. Sulzberger, for one, appears to have appreciated her assertive approach. In his internal memo announcing Robinson's retirement, he reminisced, "It was 1996 when our head of advertising at The New York Times came to me and said that the paper (which is all we were in those long-ago days) could dramatically increase its profitability and stature if it truly became a national newspaper." This memory is quickly followed by a reference to "Janet's vision and input." (Read Sulzberger's full memo and Robinson's farewell note here.) But like we said, these kinds of events tend to be very cordial affairs, so Sulzberger's niceties could be just that.
The New York Times needs a technologist. This hypothesis -- which is our favored theory -- avoids digging up Robinson's last performance report or what-if-ing over internal company politics. You'd be hard pressed to find a media pundit who wouldn't agree that the Grey Lady needs a kick in the pants from someone who understands technology -- and most importantly how to sell digital publishing to advertisers. For pure technologist, there's someone like Paul Berry, the whiz kid who built the Huffington Post. (We hear he's unhappy at AOL, by the way.) Or perhaps a Silicon Valley type could fly over and turn the company into the digital-first powerhouse that newly anointed executive editor Jill Abramson wants it to be. Heck, why not just hire Sheryl Sandberg over from Facebook? That hook-up would blow the advertising industry away. Other names we saw suggested: BuzzFeed founder and HuffPost co-founder Jonah Peretti; new media guru Jeff Jarvis; Dealbook editor Andrew Ross Sorkin (not a technologist but a curious idea nonetheless). None of these sound very likely; the idea does point to what the company needs, though. But does The Times know what it wants? We don't know, but what we do know is that it doesn't want Janet Robinson, an apparently very capable but very 20th-century kind of executive.
Think you've got what it takes? Address your cover letter to Arthur J. Sulzberger. He calls the shots for now.