Auletta chips away at the Jill Abramson story

Jill Abramson
Jill Abramson

Ken Auletta of The New Yorker keeps chipping away. This is fascinating stuff. The fickle finger of blame for why New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson was fired shifts from chief executive officer Mark Thompson (OK, that was just a theory of mine) to new editor Dean Baquet. (And, of course, and always, publisher Arthur Sulzberger.)

And as Auletta points out, the big question still hasn’t been answered: “Why did the Times, which so heralded the hiring of its first female executive editor, terminate Abramson in such a brutal fashion?”

Photo via Instagram.

Jill Abramson, accountability and The New York Times

Jill Abramson
Jill Abramson

Previously published at WGBH News.

My two favorite stories about Jill Abramson both speak to her insistence on holding The New York Times to account. Those stories may help explain why she was removed as executive editor on Wednesday.

The first pertains to investor Steven Rattner, a friend of publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. who was being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission over a kickback scheme involving the New York State pension fund. (In November 2010 Rattner paid a $6.2 million settlement and accepted a two-year ban on some of his trading activities.)

According to The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta, Abramson — then the managing editor, serving as Bill Keller’s number two — didn’t hesitate to green-light a front-page investigative report on Rattner, the Sulzberger connection be damned. “What better test is there for an editor than how they handle the publisher’s best friend?” Auletta quoted an unnamed Times source as saying.

To Sulzberger’s credit, the incident didn’t prevent him from naming Abramson to succeed Keller in 2011. But what may have created an irreparable breech was a second, similar story. In 2012, Sulzberger chose Mark Thompson, the former director general of the BBC, to become chief executive officer of the New York Times Co. Before Thompson could begin, Abramson dispatched one of the Times’ top investigative reporters to look into whether Thompson had any role in the child-sex-abuse scandal whirling around Jimmy Savile, a once-popular TV host.

Both Thompson and Sulzberger were angry, reports Gabriel Sherman in New York magazine. A source was quoted as saying of Sulzberger: “He was livid, in a very passive aggressive way. These were a set of headaches Jill had created for Arthur.”

Now the Times’ internal top cop is off the beat. And Thompson, presumably, has a freer hand to enact his agenda — an agenda that is said to include, among other things, more online video and more native advertising, the term of art used to describe what used to be disparagingly referred to as “advertorials.”

Abramson’s successor and former number two, Dean Baquet, is now the paper’s first African-American executive editor, a not-insignificant milestone on a par with Abramson’s being the first woman. He is said to be a fine editor and a popular choice with the newsroom.

But given that Sulzberger’s own son recently wrote a report arguing that the Times isn’t moving quickly enough on the digital front, it might seem strange that Abramson’s successor would be someone regarded as even less digitally savvy than she. The likely explanation is that Thompson sees himself as the paper’s chief digital officer. Certainly Thompson does not lack for confidence. Less than a year ago he supposedly told a Times executive, “I could be the editor of the New York Times,” according to an article by Joe Hagan in New York magazine.

I don’t mean to play down any of the other reasons that have been given for Abramson’s abrupt and brutal dismissal. There is the matter of her brusque demeanor, described in detail last year by Dylan Byers of Politico. At the time I dismissed it as anonymously sourced sexism, but Byers is deservedly taking a victory lap this week.

Another factor was her complaints about making less money than Bill Keller did when he was editor, a story Ken Auletta broke within hours of Abramson’s dismissal. Auletta reported that Abramson even learned she made less than a male deputy managing editor when she was managing editor. The Times has denied all, although in language that makes it hard to figure out what, precisely, it is denying.

And then there is the incident that may have precipitated the final crisis — her reported attempts to hire Janine Gibson away from The Guardian to serve as a co-managing editor for digital without bothering to inform Baquet. Certainly that’s the angle that the Times’ David Carr and Ravi Somaiya play up in their own coverage of Abramson’s dismissal. (Other accounts say Gibson would have been a deputy managing editor, and thus presumably less of a threat to Baquet’s authority.)

Still, none of these reasons sufficiently explains why Sulzberger believed Abramson needed to be dealt with so harshly. She was all but hustled out of the building, treated like Howell Raines after he was dismissed for enabling a plagiarizing, fabricating young journalist named Jayson Blair. By contrast, the Times under Abramson’s editorship has been a journalistic success and has done reasonably well financially at a time when the news business has been imploding, as Matthew Yglesias explains at Vox. (Vox also takes the prize for the best Abramson headline: “Tattooed, puppy-stealing badass editor Jill Abramson out at the New York Times.”)

“I think what it says to us is there is still enormous challenges for women out there, for women who assume those key and influential roles in journalism,” Melissa Ludtke, a pioneering sports journalist and former editor of Nieman Reports, told Politico’s Anna Palmer.

I think it’s more complicated than that. It is nevertheless a fact that in the past few years Sulzberger has fired two of the highest-ranking women in the newspaper business — first Janet Robinson, creating the vacancy that Mark Thompson later filled, and now Abramson.

In addressing the staff Wednesday, Sulzberger referred to “an issue with management in the newsroom.” That’s not good enough. And it’s not the kind of accountability Abramson pushed for in covering the powerful institution that she worked for. I hope we’ll learn more in the days ahead.

“Papa Doug” minion squawks over Globe sale

A real bump in the road? Or just the Herald being the Herald when it comes to all things related to The Boston Globe?

Chris Cassidy reports in the Boston Herald that the group headed by Douglas Manchester, the right-wing businessman who owns the paper formerly known as the San Diego Union-Tribune, is squawking because its executives believe they offered more money for the Globe than Red Sox principal owner John Henry. Cassidy quotes John Lynch, the chief executive of U-T San Diego:

We bid significantly more than Henry. At the end of the day, I’m certain our bid was higher and could have been a lot more higher if they had just asked. I’m just stunned. I thought this was a public company that had a fiduciary duty to get the most by its stockholders…. From the beginning, I don’t think they wanted to sell to us.

Cassidy writes that the allegations “could delay the deal and leave the New York Times Co. open to shareholder backlash.”

Could they? No doubt we’ll learn more in the days ahead. One thing working in favor of the deal is that the Times Co. has two classes of stockholders, with the voting shares firmly under the control of the Sulzberger family and its allies. But that doesn’t mean the Sulzbergers are legally allowed to leave money on the table.

Last February, Boston Globe reporter Beth Healy wrote an article in which Times Co. vice chairman Michael Golden made comments that could be construed as at least somewhat contradictory. Here is how she began:

New York Times Co. vice chairman Michael Golden told Boston Globe employees Friday that the company has a duty to seek the highest bidder in a sale but aims to leave the newspaper in responsible hands.

“We have no intention to send the New England Media Group to the slaughterhouse,” he said in one of three town-hall style meetings with employees.

One way of interpreting that is that the Times Co. would select the highest qualified bidder — language often invoked so that (for example) a city council isn’t legally bound to award the trash-hauling contract to the low bidder if it turns out that he plans to burn it all in his backyard. Or that the Times Co. would be required to sell to the likes of “Papa Doug” Manchester.

In today’s Globe, Healy reports that, ultimately, what fueled the Henry bid was a lot of green, which may be what prevents the Manchester group’s complaints from rising to the level of seriousness. She writes:

His [Henry’s] was not the highest bid for the Globe, according to people involved in the process. But his offer was appealing to the Times Co. because it was cash, unencumbered by financing issues or a bevy of investment partners. One executive working for the Times Co. said the key was who was best able to get the financing together and close the deal relatively quickly.

It sounds like Times Co. chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr., if pressed, will be able to make the case that he sold not just to the buyer most likely to preserve the Globe, but also to the one who was the best prepared to sit down and write a check. Money talks.

The Boston Globe may be on the block — again

[View the story “Janet Robinson and the Boston Globe” on Storify]

Arthur Sulzberger’s $15 million headache

In case you missed it, Michael Calderone of the Huffington Post weighed in with a very interesting story Tuesday on turmoil at the New York Times Co. At the top of the list is the $15 million being paid to departing chief executive Janet Robinson, who by all appearances had a falling-out with company chairman Arthur Sulzberger.

No doubt you recall that the Times Co. demanded the Boston Globe’s unions agree to $20 million in givebacks in 2009 as the price of keeping the paper alive. Now Sulzberger has given 75 percent of that money to one person. Yeah, yeah, it’s a one-time expense versus annual savings from the unions, but you get the picture.

The Times Co. this week also followed through on its plan to sell its Regional Newspaper Group, 16 smaller dailies in the South and the West. Media business analyst Ken Doctor tells the Times that the sale price of $143 million was “incredibly low” (indeed: only 9.53 Robinson-size buyout packages), and that the deal buys company executives time to think about whether it wants to keep or sell the Globe.

Following a tumultuous 2008 and ’09, the Times Co. appeared to have achieved some stability, putting its financial house at least somewhat back in order. It looks like that stability may now be coming to an end.

What will Robinson’s departure mean for the Globe?

Janet Robinson

What will the apparently less-than-pleasant departure of New York Times Co. chief executive Janet Robinson mean for the Boston Globe, its second-largest newspaper?

Obviously it’s way too early to say. But no sooner had the word gone out last night than Globe editor Marty Baron tweeted, “Grateful for her support of the @bostonglobe: New York Times CEO Janet Robinson to retire.” Not that it’s possible to read too much meaning into that.

On the other hand, Financial Times columnist John Gapper read plenty of meaning into the Times’ own account of Robinson’s retirement, tweeting, “Sulzberger fired Robinson, according to NYT (in ninth para)” (via the inestimable Jack Shafer). And what does that ninth paragraph say?

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.

The Times Co. has done a far better job than most newspaper companies of transitioning to the digital age. The Times and the Globe have pioneered the introduction of flexible paid digital editions. Moreover, both papers are performing financially much more strongly than they were when the bottom nearly fell out of the entire industry back in 2009. So you’d think Robinson would be on the plus side on those two key issues.

Nor do I think it’s credible to believe she was ousted because of the Times Co.’s collapsing stock price. As Ira Stoll notes at Future of Capitalism (via Romenesko), $10,000 worth of stock in 2004, the year she took over, would be worth $1,855 today. But that’s an industry-wide trend, and, seen in the context of major newspaper companies like Tribune falling into bankruptcy, the Times Co. seems to have done rather well.

So it will be very interesting to see what the real reason is for her abrupt, well-compensated ($4.5 million next year) departure.

Unrelated observation: Given their travails of recent months, how cool is it that I’m able to credit both Jack Shafer (now with Reuters) and Jim Romenesko in the same blog post? The natural order has been restored.

The Globe, Jack Connors and Mike Barnicle

Mike Barnicle

I’m just catching up to this excellent analysis by Poynter’s Rick Edmonds of the Aaron Kushner group’s ongoing efforts to buy the Boston Globe from the New York Times Co. Edmonds’ bottom line: a sale is possible but unlikely.

With the Globe’s business having stabilized and the Times Co.’s debt burden eased, Edmonds writes, “It looks to me like a keeper for the company — unless someone comes forward with cash and is prepared to way overpay.”

Last week the Globe’s Brian McGrory reported that local advertising executive Jack Connors has joined the Kushner group, which already includes former Globe publisher Ben Taylor and his cousin Steve Taylor, himself a former top Globe executive. This isn’t the first time Connors has tried to become part of the Globe’s ownership.

It also raises the intriguing question of whether the specter of former Globe columnist Mike Barnicle can be far behind. Barnicle was involved in a bid by retired General Electric chief executive Jack Welch and Connors to buy the Globe several years ago, a bid that Barnicle told Boston magazine was “very serious.” In a 2007 Boston Globe Magazine piece by the legendary Steve Bailey, Barnicle’s wife, Bank of America executive Anne Finucane, was described as one of Connors’ “closest friends.”

It’s hard to know what to make of the Barnicle connection, but my guess is that it diminishes the likelihood that the Times Co. will sell the Globe. It would be the ultimate revenge for Barnicle. It’s also a victory that I suspect Times Co. chief executive Arthur Sulzberger Jr. would rather not let him have, given that Barnicle was let go by the Globe in 1998 — possibly with a push from New York — over a series of ethical transgressions.

Globe publisher Taylor was both lucky and good

William Taylor

William Taylor, the former Boston Globe publisher who died Sunday, was both lucky and good.

Lucky because his time as publisher coincided with an era of enormous prosperity in the newspaper industry. Good because he used that prosperity to transform the Globe into one of the best papers in the country. Under Taylor and the late editor Tom Winship, the Globe grew into a national-class paper with its own correspondents overseas and around the country.

For those who needed reminding, today’s obituary, by Bryan Marquard, explains why Taylor had to sell. With the paper on the verge of devolving to about 120 heirs, the only way Taylor could preserve the Globe’s legacy was to leave it in the hands of a good steward. He chose the New York Times Co., which paid an astounding $1.1 billion — half the Times Co.’s stock-market valuation at the time.

And if the Sulzbergers haven’t been quite the magnanimous owners Bill Taylor might have hoped for (especially when his second cousin Ben Taylor was sacked as publisher in 1999), they still have maintained the Globe’s quality to a far greater degree than a bottom-feeding chain like Gannett or a bankrupt behemoth like Tribune would have.

Bill Taylor’s death comes at a time when Ben Taylor and his cousin Steve, himself a former Globe executive, are seeking to return to some sort of ownership role as part of a group put together by local businessman Aaron Kushner.

The Taylor brand gives Kushner instant credibility — and it was Bill Taylor who was largely responsible for creating that brand.

Also: The Nieman Foundation pays tribute to Taylor.

The Taylors make another run at the Globe

News that Ben and Steve Taylor have signed on to businessman Aaron Kushner’s bid to buy the Boston Globe has changed the dynamic. The Taylors, of course, are prominent members of the family that owned and ran the Globe for more than 100 years. Ben was the publisher before he was ousted in 1999. Steve was executive vice president.

The Taylors, who are cousins, fell short in a bid to buy the paper back from the New York Times Co. in 2009. The reason was never announced, but the buzz was that their group was undercapitalized, and that the Times Co. would have had to accept a ridiculously low price in that year of economic crisis. The Globe would undoubtedly be worth more now, but how much more is hard to say.

The significance of the Taylors’ involvement is that there now will be support within influential circles for the Times Co. to return the Globe to local ownership.

Would Times Co. chairman Arthur Sulzberger sell the Globe? By placing the Globe, the Worcester Telegram & Gazette and their associated websites on the block in 2009, he made it clear that he would if the price was right and if he and other Times Co. executives were comfortable with the buyers.

I suspect the big question they’ll now have to answer is whether they can get the price they want — or if, instead, they think they can get more by hanging on to their New England properties for another few years.

The Globe first reported Kushner’s interest last October.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

What Murdoch really wants in New York

In my latest for the Guardian, I argue that the just-unveiled New York edition of the Wall Street Journal doesn’t have to beat the New York Times in order for Journal owner Rupert Murdoch to accomplish his goal. Murdoch only has to make the Times bleed.