Business

Good Jill, Bad Jill

Grove Abramson
07/31/13
COVER STORY
Newsweek profiled Jill Abramson, who was abruptly fired on May 14, 2014, in a July 2013 cover story Peter Yang/AUGUST

April was an unusual, if not the cruelest, month for New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson, who in September will mark two years on the job. On Monday afternoon, April 15, Abramson—who, at 59, is the first woman to serve as top editor in the Times’ 160-year history—had barely begun savoring the four Pulitzer Prizes that her staff had just won (this year’s biggest haul, by far, for any journalistic outlet) when the Boston Marathon bombings occurred. Pulling an all-nighter at one point in the third-floor newsroom of the Times’ Renzo Piano–designed Manhattan skyscraper, she presided over a breathless week of “flooding the zone” (as one of her predecessors, Howell Raines, liked to say), while her reporters and editors managed to avoid the sort of embarrassing errors committed by the Associated Press, CNN, and even the Times Co.–owned Boston Globe.

Then, the night of April 23, Politico—the Washington trade paper that aims to “drive the conversation”—published a story suggesting that Abramson’s young editorship was already a failure. Quoting anonymous former and current Times employees, Politico claimed she was widely considered “stubborn,” “condescending,” “difficult to work with,” “unreasonable,” “impossible,” “disengaged,” and “uncaring”—“on the verge of losing the support of the newsroom.” One staffer confided to media reporter Dylan Byers: “The Times is leaderless right now ... Jill is very, very unpopular.”

A petite woman who speaks in an exaggerated Upper West Side drawl that evokes The Nanny meets Harvard (where she was active in undergraduate journalism), Abramson was home alone in Tribeca the night the story broke. Her husband of 32 years, Henry Griggs, was out, as were their two adult children, when she read it online.

Grove-fe0128-Abramson-tease-embed2 The newsroom applauds at the announcement of Abramson’s promotion in 2011. Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times/Redux

“I cried,” Abramson tells me. “I should say it went right off me, but I’m just being honest. I did cry. But by the next morning, I wasn’t completely preoccupied by it anymore. I had my cry and that was that. And [Times Co. chairman] Arthur Sulzberger came down and was very supportive. He basically said, ‘It goes with the territory. Don’t let it get to you.’ ” The publisher also invoked what he calls the Second Law of Journalism: “It’s not your fault. It’s just your turn.”

Running The New York Times has never been for the faint of heart. Abramson’s 23 months at the wheel have been punctuated by the death in Syria of Pulitzer Prize–winning foreign correspondent Anthony Shadid, a bitter contract dispute with the Newspaper Guild, and, seven months ago, forced buyouts of around 30 midlevel editors, including some of the Times’ most beloved veterans.

“I can tell you from personal experience that morale heads into a trough when you’re going through one of those,” says Bill Keller, Abramson’s immediate predecessor as executive editor, who once likened the job, during a period of buyouts and forced retirements, to “wearing bloody butcher’s smocks.” “Some of these people were a serious loss—they carry institutional memory and good will and a sense of how the place works at a human level. But it was a smart choice for Jill to do a round [targeting highly paid managers] at least where you were not losing reporters and photographers and copy editors. It shows that everybody shares in the pain.”

Yet, unique in an industry plagued by cutbacks and shutdowns, Abramson’s newsroom is staffed at the same level (around 1,100 employees) as it was a decade ago, and boasts 14 national and six regional bureaus, plus 25 foreign bureaus—more than at any moment in the paper’s history. This is in stark contrast to such newspapers as The Washington Post, which over the past decade closed all its domestic bureaus and slashed the head count in its newsroom, once more than 900, by nearly a fourth. Meanwhile, the Times’ risky transition from free to metered online access appears to be working: the Web edition boasts more than 700,000 paying subscribers.

Still, the Times is by no means immune to the generalized angst vexing the news biz as a whole as dead-tree gives way to digital and—at the Times, at least—a newly empowered business department (the traditional province of circulation, promotion, and advertising) appears to be playing an increasingly muscular role in the creation of journalistic content. “It’s been very challenging and a ton of fun,” Abramson tells me. She works closely with the new Times Co. president and CEO, Mark Thompson, 56, a Brit who arrived in November after a decade running the BBC and transforming the government-supported television and radio network into a multiplatform, multiproduct, digital news-and-entertainment powerhouse.

Grove-fe0128-Abramson-tease-embed1 “The New York Times,” Abramson told Nate Silver’s agent, “is always the prettiest girl at the party.” Justin Lane/EPA/Getty

Their mission: “Finding new paid products that we can derive revenue from,” Abramson says, “and pushing The New York Times as an international news organization and must-read in the same way that, during an earlier period, the Times went national when no other regional or city paper was attempting that.”

On a less vertiginous level, in the newsroom, Abramson says she’s been preaching the gospel of vivid writing, granular reporting, and what she calls “the story behind the story,” instead of a traditional Times tendency to present news and analysis in the “voice of God.” She adds: “People in the newsroom and my colleagues know that I put a premium on investigative work.”

Her close friends in journalism include a circle of successful women, notably Washington columnist Maureen Dowd, television critic Alessandra Stanley, book critic Michiko Kakutani (a recent houseguest at Abramson’s weekend place in Connecticut), and New Yorker writer Jane Mayer. With her voracious appetite for gossip concerning all things media and politics, Abramson also is friendly with Clinton confidant Vernon Jordan, journalism entrepreneur Steven Brill (one of her early bosses), Bloomberg Media’s Al Hunt and Norman Pearlstine, and ProPublica’s Paul Steiger (the latter three are colleagues from her Wall Street Journal days). From time to time, she uses some of them as sounding boards as she grapples with running the Times.

She almost didn’t get the chance: in May 2007, Abramson was hit by a truck near the Times building, and spent weeks in the hospital recovering from a broken hip and femur among other grave injuries. “I do think that almost being killed does help you keep in perspective small setbacks like a Politico story or a difficult personnel issue,” Abramson says with flagrant understatement. “Or maybe it’s just part of the aging process that I’ve gotten better at that.”

We are sitting side by side in modernist leather settees on an airy balcony overlooking the sun-dappled company cafeteria, where Keller, now an op-ed columnist, is lunching with a colleague, and the publisher’s son, metro desk editor Arthur Gregg Sulzberger (whom Abramson has just appointed to lead a “skunk-works” task force to think up new ways “to expand our news offerings digitally”), is breaking bread with Washington bureau chief David Leonhardt.

Some 30 feet away by the 15th-floor elevator bank, a middle-aged man in shirtsleeves and loosened tie is pacing feverishly, a cellphone glued to his ear. “There’s David Barstow,” Abramson says, pointing out the multiple Pulitzer winner who shared this year’s investigative prize for a series on Walmart’s serial bribing of public officials in Mexico. “I worship David Barstow.”

Surely, Barstow, 50, has been a valuable asset since he joined the Times in 1999, but he’s an ink-stained wretch; it’s unlikely his salary matches that of celebrity-statistician Nate Silver, the author of the controversial yet eerily prophetic FiveThirtyEight blog—and certainly it’s nowhere near what Silver will be pulling down when he leaves the paper to join ESPN after his contract runs out next month. “A ton of money,” guesses Keller, who hired the 35-year-old Silver.

Grove-fe0128-Abramson-tease-embed4 “It’s not your fault,” Sulzberger comforted Abramson after the Politico story. “It’s just your turn.” David Brabyn/Corbis

Abramson, who says she worked hard to keep him, recalls a meeting with Silver’s lawyer-agent: “The first thing he said to me was, ‘I’m in a pretty good position because I represent the prettiest girl at the party.’ And I looked at him and I made sort of a face, like, ‘Yeah, really?’ And then I said to him, ‘The New York Times is always the prettiest girl at the party.’ ”

In the end, “Nate is invested in the brand of Nate,” Abramson says. “And I was invested in what I thought was a fabulous combination, which is FiveThirtyEight in The New York Times—which I do think greatly increased people’s interest in it, and its reach and its impact. And in my view he didn’t assign enough value to that, and that’s why we lost him.” Silver declined to comment.

Silver, who was generally well liked but never quite shed the skepticism of more conventional newsroom denizens, is the most obvious example of a phenomenon at the Times and other outlets: journalists whose personal brands trump the institutions they work for. And he’s only the latest Times brand name to be poached by a subsidiary of the Walt Disney Co., a media-and-entertainment empire that doesn’t blink at flashing cash, given that its market capitalization is around 66 times that of the comparatively puny ($1.78 billion) Times Co. National political correspondent Jeff Zeleny and his colleague Susan Saulny were lured to ABC News in February.

Ironically, Abramson mentions she’s hosting ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer and her boss, Anne Sweeney, president of the Disney/ABC Television Group, at that day’s 4 o’clock news meeting. “That how big and open-hearted a person I am,” Abramson jokes.

As we talk, uniformed maintenance workers begin carrying away chairs and tables to set up for a corporate event, and in due course a young guy approaches and tells us we have to leave. “I’m the executive editor—I need to be here for a little while,” Abramson declares flatly. “You can tell your boss to come talk to me, OK?”

Wisely, he retreats. Abramson is nothing if not formidable. As a disciple of Brill at The American Lawyer and Legal Times, and later in the Washington office of The Wall Street Journal, she proved herself a relentless, meticulous investigative reporter and editor; as Washington bureau chief for the Times during the truncated, Jayson Blair–afflicted reign of the aforementioned Raines (no ally of Abramson’s), she was a skilled and resilient bureaucratic infighter who tended to outlast and outwork her adversaries.

I’ve known Abramson professionally since her D.C. days, when I worked for The Washington Post, and have found her to be down-to-earth, whip-smart, funny, and fun. Mayer, who attended New York’s private Ethical Culture Fieldston School with Abramson and, decades later, co-authored a bestselling book with her about Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, calls her “an incredibly soft, thoughtful, nice person ... a great friend and an incredible mom. Her nickname, way back at Legal Times, was ‘Mama’ because she used to look after everybody.” Keller, for whom Abramson worked as managing editor during his eight-year reign, says, “Jill is the one who visits you when you’re in the hospital.”

Grove-fe0128-Abramson-tease-embed5 An exposé of former premier Wen Jiabao (seen in poster) infuriated China, making business relations difficult for the Times. Peter Parks/AFP/Getty

And yet, there is an element of truth to the Politico critique, which, as former Guardian executive Emily Bell argued in a rousing defense of Abramson, can be applied (but seldom is) to any number of top male bosses at major news organizations. “[I]t fuels an exasperating and wholly sexist narrative about women in power,” Bell wrote in the column—one of several by female journalists slamming Politico for similar reasons.

To be sure, Abramson can be high-handed, impatient, sarcastic, judgmental, and obstinate—much like the newspaper she leads, whose undisputed excellence and unparalleled influence is accompanied by an institutional arrogance that occasionally bleeds into Times reporters’ real-world interactions with lesser souls (be they government officials, business executives, or editors at rival media outlets).

“I have some concerns about that,” Abramson says about allegations of arrogance, noting that one of the Times’ missions is to “hold powerful institutions accountable ... I don’t think that the reporters do that with arrogance ... I do think a really healthy thing for most journalists is to be written about—because then you have a sense of what it feels like.”

Abramson acknowledges that “there’s ‘Good Jill’ and there’s ‘Bad Jill.’” When Arthur Sulzberger conducted her job interview for executive editor—the fourth he has appointed since taking over as publisher from his father, the late Arthur Sr., in 1992—she admitted to occasional “brusqueness.”

“Let’s agree that all of us are human, and all of us have our faults and our flaws,” Sulzberger tells me. “And when you’re looking for someone to be a leader, one of the things you’re looking for is self-awareness. Not to suggest you’re looking for perfection, because you’re not going to find that, but for someone who says, ‘Well, yeah, I can be that way; I’m focused on it; I recognize it.’ ”

Grove-fe0128-Abramson-tease-embed7 Many female journalists took Abramson’s side after the Politico piece, claiming it perpetuated a double standard. Kena Betancur/Reuters

Sulzberger, 61, says he picked Abramson “first and foremost because of her extraordinary journalistic skills. I mean, she knows a story the way the top editors of the news organization should. She’s got a broad vision ... deep breadth. She’s also got leadership.” He insists he barely considered her gender and the historic nature of the appointment. “That’s not what drove the decision in the slightest,” he says. “It is important that we have women and people of color in positions of authority at the newspaper—and we do—but that can’t be a factor in why you’re going to choose the person to be the leader.” (Abramson’s No. 2, managing editor Dean Baquet, the former top editor of the Los Angeles Times, is African-American.)

In a conspicuous display of support for his much-scrutinized executive editor, Sulzberger invited Newsweek to breakfast in his corporate dining room along with Thompson. Thompson, who insists he isn’t distracted by persistent criticism in the U.K. for his handling of an in-house sex-abuse scandal and expensive severance packages while at the BBC, recalls meeting with Abramson and Sulzberger in October. It was when the Times was putting the finishing touches on its Pulitzer-winning series exposing corruption among the Chinese political elite.

“Arthur, pretty unkindly, looked up and said, ‘Mark, we’ve got this story ... What do you think we should do?’ ” Thompson tells me as Sulzberger chuckles. It was clear that the series, which focused on billions of dollars in personal wealth amassed and controlled by family members of Chinese then-premier Wen Jiabao, would have grave consequences for the Times Co.’s business interests in the rich Chinese market, including a recently launched Chinese-language web edition. “And Jill was looking at me very intently. Well, I’m pretty well brought up. I knew the right answer: ‘Print it!’ ” (Abramson confirms that she was watching Thompson closely: “I wanted to know: ‘Are you a man or a mouse?’ ”)

Predictably, Chinese authorities swiftly blocked access from the mainland to the Times’ English and Chinese websites, undoing years of work and diplomacy, and Sulzberger has spent the past nine months trying to get it restored. “It’s obviously painful, but that’s the business we’re in,” he says. “I’ve had a lot of conversations with them.”

Grove-fe0128-Abramson-tease-embed6-wide Sulzberger (at right) with four of his five executive editors: (from left) Keller, Abramson, Max Frankel, and Joseph Lelyveld. Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times/Redux

In March, Sulzberger recruited Rebecca Howard, a nonjournalist with a background at AOL/Huffington Post and Fox Digital Studios, to be general manager of the Times’ video department, with authority over content in what increasingly is seen as an advertising and revenue driver. Howard, who reports both to Abramson and digital-products executive vice president Denise Warren, represents, at least for some in the Times newsroom, a potentially troubling intrusion of commercial interests into journalism—especially as her staff occupies more and more desks on the news floor.

Sulzberger pooh-poohs such concerns. “In the ’40s and ’50s and ’60s, this was called ‘creating a new section,’ ” he says by way of analogy. “And you got together a team from the news and the business sides and they would work together collectively to create a new section. But when the section was up and running, it was clear, there was no question: that was the ad department, and that was the news department.”

Sulzberger’s analogy doesn’t quite fit. Traditionally, the news department consults the business side about a new section, but then designs and executes the new section independently. With the video department’s organizational chart, the boundaries are blurred.

“It’s a new structural approach to jobs here,” Abramson says, noting that Times design director Tom Bodkin, at the behest of CEO Thompson, also reports jointly to news and business. “I’m sensitive to the concerns,” Abramson says, “and have not seen any hint of a collision between the two sides of the Times.”

In January, she installed assistant managing editor Rick Berke, a well-liked and respected Times veteran, as the journalistic overseer of the video operation. Berke has no formal authority over content—that’s Howard’s prerogative—but she has effectively delegated to him the responsibility for day-to-day video production.

The move, which knocked Berke off the masthead, was widely seen as a demotion. Berke had once been close to Abramson, serving as her buffer and interpreter to her sometimes cowed underlings when she was Washington bureau chief and managing editor. But after Baquet was named Abramson’s managing editor, Berke talked to The Washington Post about a possible top management position. By most accounts, Abramson was angry at Berke because she heard he was also trying to steal then-metropolitan editor Carolyn Ryan, an Abramson favorite and currently political editor, as part of a deal with the Post. Abramson has apparently now forgiven him. “I think the world of Rick,” she says, adding that his video duties “are vitally important to me.” (Berke declined to comment.)

Grove-fe0128-Abramson-tease-embed3-wide “The Times,” says Sulzberger, slapping his palm on the table, “is Not. For. Sale.” Ramin Talaie/Getty

In other pressing business concerns for the Times Co., Sulzberger has been trying to unload The Boston Globe and the Worcester, Massachusetts, Telegram & Gazette, which are likely to fetch a tiny fraction of the more than a billion dollars he paid for them decades ago; this fall, the Paris-based International Herald Tribune—which had been jointly owned with The Washington Post until the Times Co. staged a takeover in 2003—will be rebranded The International New York Times.

The publicly traded Times Co., which had $866 million in cash and securities as of the most recent quarterly report, stopped paying dividends in 2009 and has no plans to resume them—a potential worry if Sulzberger’s stock-holding relatives start feeling financially stressed. Not a problem, he insists. “The family was totally united around the decision” to cease dividends, he says. “Obviously, the family would like it. But they get it. And their commitment to the institution is that powerful.” He adds: “We get more pressure, frankly, from our major investors.”

Are more employee buyouts in the newsroom’s future? “Those are the kinds of questions that are almost impossible to answer,” Sulzberger says, noting that while the newsroom has been restructured but not downsized, the business department has suffered “really dramatic cuts” over the years. “You tell me what the economy’s going to be like two years from now and maybe we can talk.”

Meanwhile, Sulzberger is quick to dismiss continual talk that some multibillionaire media mogul such as Mayor Mike Bloomberg will one day buy the Times. “Imagine. People talk. What a shock,” Sulzberger says sarcastically. “The Times,” he says, slapping his palm on the table, “is Not. For. Sale.”

By the time Abramson is required to relinquish the helm at the end of 2019, the year she turns 65, Sulzberger envisions a Times that is “more global, more digital, and has really broken the code on mobile”—that is, how to unleash revenue streams from smartphones and tablets. “Those are three critical issues for us.”

Abramson, for her part, might have to leave her current job in six years, but she doesn’t see herself ever stopping work. “In terms of my professional life, I always felt a little happy that my husband and I never had much money. I never had to go through the should-I-stay-at-home conversation. I also wanted to work, because I really liked it.” She adds: “They’re gonna have to take me out feet first, or chop off my head.”

Cover photo illustration by John Ritter.

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