On Wednesday afternoon the media world was shocked to learn that The New York Times had abruptly fired Executive Editor Jill Abramson and replaced her with Managing Editor Dean Baquet. Abramson was a 17-year Times veteran, and the first woman to ever to hold the top editing spot when she took over for Bill Keller in 2011. (Baquet will be the first African-American to be executive editor.)
When publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. made the announcement in a staff-wide meeting, his only reason given was that it was "an issue with management in the newsroom," Sulzberger said, but not a reflection of the quality of Abramson work, or the paper under leadership. He also added that it was not due to any conflicts between the business side of the paper, and the editorial side.
Yet Abramson herself was not in attendance at the meeting and it was clear, both from her statements and Sulzberger's, that the decision to leave was not voluntary and she would not be participating in any transition. (Her name has already been removed from the online masthead.)
It didn't take long for New York's plugged in media reporters to hash out the reasons behind Abramson's abrupt exit. The relationship between Abramson and Sulzberger had been deteriorating over the past few months, according to reports from The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta, NPR’s David Folkenflik, and Capital New York’s Joe Pompeo, three of the most reliable Times whisperers in the business. Previous profiles of Abramson have suggested she was "brusque" and "pushy" and not well liked in the newsroom, but her split with upper management appears to have hinged, at least in part, on a pay dispute.
According to Auletta, Abramson had recently learned that she was being paid less than some male editors who had served in the same positions as her, and her attempts to correct the problem were not well-received.
Several weeks ago, I’m told, Abramson discovered that her pay and her pension benefits as both executive editor and, before that, as managing editor, were considerably less than the pay and pension benefits of Bill Keller, the male editor whom she replaced in both jobs. “She confronted the top brass,” one close associate said, and this may have fed into the management’s narrative that she was “pushy,” a characterization that, for many, has an inescapably gendered aspect.
Auletta later updated his story to say that the discrepancy in pay was corrected only after Abramson complained, but the Times is pushing back on his characterization of events. "Jill's total compensation as executive editor was not less than Bill Keller's, so that is just incorrect," New York Times spokesperson Eileen Murphy told Politico. Murphy also told Auletta that her "total compensation as executive editor 'was directly comparable to Bill Keller’s'—though it was not actually the same." Murphy told Business Insider that the pay "not meaningfully less" than Keller's, but argues that seniority and other factors were at play. Keller has been at the Times longer than Abramson, and pension freezes were instituted in 2009.
Either way, a confrontation happened — Auletta says Abramson had a lawyer make "polite inquiries" — and that dispute may have been the final straw that lead to Sulzberger's decision. Auletta reports the pay gap issue had since been rectified, but it was obviously a sensitive issue for paper that had been sued before by its female employees. (Despite the fact she was right to speak up and demand equal pay, as the Times advised women in 2012. As many have noted today, the paper has covered the issue extensively over the years.) “Whether Abramson was right or wrong, both sides were left unhappy,” Auletta says.
But a pay issue that was since rectified could not by itself end the tenure of one of the most powerful women in journalism. Other issues allegedly contributed to Abramson’s ouster. Folkenflik reports Sulzberger never liked the high profile that Abramson kept up as the “first female executive editor,” of the Times, and that some within Times editorial found her “brusque to the point of rudeness,” as Politico said last year in a report (that was widely criticized for being sexist.) “None of which should discount her ability as a journalist - or Q of whether a male exec editor would find his manner so scrutinized,” Folkenflik added. The Times itself even reports that Abramson "had recently engaged a consultant to help her with that aspect of her job [leadership style]" but the decision was made last Friday to dismiss her anyway.
Abramson also clashed with new Times CEO Mark Thompson, who in 2012 was hired away from the BBC at a time when that news organization was being investigated for possibly covering up child sexual abuse by one of its employees. Thompson reportedly pushed video as the future of the Times’ digital initiatives, but Abramson didn’t agree with his direction, arguing it was “a diversion of time and energy,” according to Folkenflik.
Pompeo reports that Sulzburger, speaking to Times video editor Bruce Headlam during the surprise editorial meeting Wednesday afternoon, said he was sure Abramson’s firing "doesn't come as a surprise to you.” To Sulzberger’s shock, Headlam was dumbfounded, as was most of the staff. “It does come as a surprise to me," Headlam allegedly told Sulzberger. The clashes between Abramson and Thompson were first reported by New York’s Joe Hagan.
The role of “visionary” at the paper, traditionally held by the news chief, was now being ceded to Thompson. And in recent months, say several Times sources, Abramson has chafed at some of Thompson’s moves as he redirects company resources to projects of ambiguous design, including an aggressive video unit run by a former AOL/Huffington Post executive who sits among news editors but reports to the corporate side of the Times.
(Update: 9:00 p.m. ET) The Times' own reporters, David Carr and Ravi Somaiya, write that Abramson even clashed with her successor, Baquet. A major point of contention between them appears to be Abramson's attempt to hire a second, co-managing editor without consulting Baquet. The decision "escalated the conflict between them and rose to the attention of Mr. Sulzberger."
So while the pay gap is concerning for many, including obviously Abramson, it appears to be just one of several issues that caused a rift between the executive editor and her bosses. A rift that led Sulzberger to force a leadership change after just three years.
(Update: 9:49 p.m. ET) That co-managing editor? Janine Gibson, editor-in-chief of Guardian's US version. In March, it was announced that Gibson would be moving back to London to become editor-in-chief of Guardian's website and replaced by Katharine Viner this summer.