May 15 (Bloomberg) -- When Arthur Sulzberger Jr. named Jill Abramson the first female editor of the New York Times Co. in 2011, he sang her praises as “the perfect choice to lead the next phase of The Times’s evolution.”
In fact, the newspaper’s publisher and chairman was never comfortable with Abramson, according to several people familiar with the situation, and yesterday he unceremoniously pushed her out. Frictions between Sulzberger, 62, and Abramson, 60, had been worsening in recent months, said the people, who cited a fundamental clash of personalities.
“None of this makes sense for it to happen the way it did,” said Alex S. Jones, a director at the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University and author of the book, “The Trust,” about the Ochs-Sulzberger family that controls the Times Co. “Especially given everything that it took to get her there, and what she represents as an icon of journalism.”
Abramson’s successor, Dean Baquet, the newspaper’s first African-American executive editor, takes over as The Times battles shrinking advertising sales and competition from a flurry of blogs and upstarts that appeal to younger readers. Chief Executive Officer Mark Thompson, hired in 2012, has unveiled two digital subscription products -- one aimed at younger readers with a lower-priced news app called NYTNow and a higher-end plan called Times Premier.
Abramson’s ouster was a shock to many in the newsroom, according to people who were present. Before joining the Times, Abramson had distinguished herself as an investigative reporter at the Wall Street Journal and had championed hard-hitting journalism as executive editor. Even so, many applauded the appointment of Baquet, who is seen as a dogged defender of newsroom policies and is well liked by reporters who have worked directly with him.
While the publisher and editor of a newspaper have inherent conflicts -- with the publisher working to attract advertisers and with the editor dedicated to publishing stories without fear or favor -- the friction between Sulzberger and Abramson had personal overtones, according to two people.
She had told several colleagues that Sulzberger thought negatively of her, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the matter was considered confidential. Sulzberger saw Abramson as overly enamored of all the public attention afforded the executive editor of what is widely considered the world’s most powerful newspaper, the people said.
Sulzberger sent a memo to employees today to clear up what he called misinformation surrounding Abramson’s dismissal. He said that her pay was comparable to that of previous executive editors and that her total compensation in 2013 was 10 percent more than her predecessor. He wrote that pension comparisons are more difficult because payouts are based on years spent at the company and were frozen for all managers in 2009.
“Compensation played no part whatsoever in my decision that Jill could not remain as executive editor,” Sulzberger wrote in the memo. “Nor did any discussion about compensation. The reason – the only reason – for that decision was concerns I had about some aspects of Jill’s management of our newsroom, which I had previously made clear to her, both face-to-face and in my annual assessment.”
As the first female to run the Times in its 162-year history, Abramson was one of the most powerful women in media. She had taken to giving interviews and appearing on panels without consulting the company, a move that rankled Sulzberger, according to two people. He saw her as someone who liked having the title more than doing the job, three people said.
As publisher, Sulzberger can hire and fire executive editors and doesn’t require board approval. Yesterday, when he announced the change, Sulzberger said he was doing so because he thought new leadership would improve some aspects of the management of the newsroom.
Times Co. shares had extended earlier losses following the announcement yesterday to close down 4.5 percent. Today, the shares fell 1.2 percent to $14.88.
The stock, which more than doubled during Abramson’s tenure, is still down 72 percent through yesterday from a 2002 peak.
“Wall Street doesn’t care,” said Ed Atorino, an analyst at Benchmark Co. in New York. “She’s not a financial person and has little impact on earnings.”
Investors are more concerned with the company’s digital strategy and advertising sales, he said.
Sulzberger has presided over a revolving door of editors and executives. He passed over Bill Keller in 2001 to name Howell Raines as the top editor. Raines was forced out two years later after it emerged that reporter Jayson Blair had fabricated stories.
Sulzberger went back to Keller, who led the newsroom for eight years, a long tenure by Times standards. In looking for Keller’s replacement, Sulzberger whittled down the candidates to Abramson and Baquet. The same year he named Abramson editor, Sulzberger pushed out Janet Robinson as CEO. The recent shakeup appears to mirror his earlier editor appointments.
Eileen Murphy, a spokeswoman for the Times, declined to comment. Sulzberger, Abramson and Keller didn’t immediately respond to calls to their mobile phones.
The Times wrote yesterday that as part of a settlement agreement between Abramson and the newspaper, neither side will go into detail about her firing.
Abramson had tried to hire Janine Gibson, editor-in-chief of the Guardian in the U.S., as managing editor of the Times alongside Baquet. The Times, citing unnamed sources briefed on the situation, reported that the move angered Baquet because he wasn’t consulted and the conflict rose to the attention of Sulzberger.
Baquet, 57, had taken over as managing editor for Abramson when she was elevated in September 2011. Before that he served as assistant managing editor and Washington bureau chief for the Times since March 2007. He was also formerly the editor of the Los Angeles Times and won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting in 1988 at the Chicago Tribune.
Baquet is “a consummate journalist whose reputation as a fierce advocate for his reporters and editors is well-deserved,” Sulzberger said in a memo yesterday. “And importantly, he is an enthusiastic supporter of our push toward further creativity in how we approach the digital expression of our journalism.”
Both of the Pulitzer Prizes the Times won this year were for photography.
In a bid to boost sales, Thompson has championed so-called native advertising -- online ads designed to resemble news articles. In the first quarter, the company lifted its advertising sales for the first time in more than three years, yet Thompson warned that those increases may not continue. The company had posted ad sales declines for the prior 13 quarters as it struggled to replace print ads with digital sales, exacerbated by executive turnover amid budget cuts.
When Abramson was appointed executive editor, she called the role “a dream job for any journalist.”
“I’ve loved my run at The Times,” Abramson said in the company’s statement. “We successfully blazed trails on the digital frontier and we have come so far in inventing new forms of story-telling.”
Abramson had grappled with the newsroom’s transition to digital media. A task force that included Sulzberger’s son, A. G. Sulzberger, released a report this month calling for the creation of a team of editors to shape long-term strategy for online and mobile readers. The bottom line: the Times has made great strides in becoming a more digital newsroom, but times are changing quickly and the newspaper needs to keep up.
“Because this is a newsroom, the short-term demands of news often steal precious time from long-term planning to ensure that we are tracking and adjusting to the continuous changes in technology, reader behavior and the competitive environment,” according to the report.
Abramson had already left the Times headquarters before the announcement yesterday, according to several staff members. She will have no future role at the newspaper.
“Jill is not only a great journalist but she brought to her tenure at the Times both this passion for quality journalism and her understanding of the need for the Times to evolve,” said Arianna Huffington, the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post. “She brought a lot of wisdom and perspective to both her work and her life. I’m looking forward to seeing what she does next.”
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