NYT Editor Inherits Business Battles Fought by Abramson

Dean Baquet is a veteran of the turf battles between editorial and business departments. As the new executive editor of the New York Times Co., he’ll have to navigate that terrain at a moment when the lines between newsgathering and moneymaking are blurring as never before.

His predecessor, Jill Abramson, was pushed out in part because she resisted what she considered the business side’s encroachment on editorial, according to people familiar with the situation. As the 162-year-old paper remakes its newsroom to compete with digital upstarts from BuzzFeed to the Huffington Post, Baquet, like many newsroom chiefs these days, will find himself juggling two roles: editor and business executive.

“For someone in Baquet’s position, you have to be savvy about the Internet, you have to be literate about the Internet business, and you have to be receptive to new business models,” said Ken Doctor, an analyst with Outsell Inc. “Clearly, that was one of the issues with Jill Abramson.”

Like most newspapers, the company has been forced to retrench and regroup -- refocusing on the New York Times brand and selling off such ancillary businesses as About.com and the Boston Globe. Still, the paper suffered through 13 straight quarters of ad declines before seeing a small increase in the most recent period. That will be a short-lived gain as the company expects ad sales to fall this quarter.

Eileen Murphy, a spokeswoman for Times Co., declined to comment.

Job Cuts

Baquet, 57, has shown himself willing to make tough business decisions in the past. When he was managing editor of the Los Angeles Times, he and editor John Carroll had to find ways to cut staff and fired about 260 people from 2000 to 2005.

While Baquet “understood it was a business,” making the cuts “was a big, emotional struggle for him,” said Martin Gottlieb, a former colleague at the New York Times. The two stayed in touch even after Baquet moved to Los Angeles.

“The idea of the cuts were agonizing because you care about the institution, you care about the people, and you still have to look coldly at the reality and decide what is the best thing all around,” said Gottlieb, who’s now the editor of the Record newspaper in New Jersey.

When Baquet took over as Los Angeles Times editor in 2005, he drew the line on yet another round of cuts because he said losing more people would put the journalism in jeopardy. That call got him fired and led some New York Times executives to question his suitability when he was first considered for the top editorial job in 2010, according to several people with knowledge of the matter. Some Times executives foresaw the need to whittle down its own staff at the time, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the matter was private.

Balancing Interests

The pressures on newsrooms have only intensified since then. With industrywide revenue falling by more than a third since 2005, the once inviolate “church and state” structure is breaking down as newspapers seek new revenue sources. Most major newspapers, including the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, are experimenting with native advertising -- online marketing messages made to resemble news articles -- a move that was unthinkable just a few years ago.

It takes a nimble editor to retain both the support of the newsroom and the number-crunchers. By many accounts, Abramson, 60, struggled to balance the interests of both the newsroom and the business side. Before being pushed out by Chairman and Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. on May 14, she’d lost on some key business decisions, according to several executives.

Video Hire

Native advertising particularly offended her editorial sensibilities, the people said. Abramson believed such ads could confuse readers and privately expressed concern they would hurt the reputation of the newsroom, they said. She was told by Chief Executive Officer Mark Thompson that it was necessary to the Times’s business and she acquiesced, one of the people said.

Abramson resented some of Thompson’s decisions that she saw as encroaching on editorial terrain. For example, he hired Rebecca Howard of the Huffington Post to head up the newspaper’s video operations in early 2013. Abramson saw video as the purview of editorial and was concerned by the appointment of Howard, a business executive, the people said.

Abramson didn’t respond to phone calls or text messages seeking comment.

Times Co. shares fell 5.6 percent in the last two days. Today, the shares rose 0.7 percent to $14.98 at the close in New York.

Digital Newsroom

Baquet rejoined the New York Times in its Washington bureau after he was fired and eventually became managing editor under Abramson. A Pulitzer Prize winner for investigative reporting, Baquet is considered a reporter’s editor and is broadly liked and admired in the Times newsroom.

In a memo announcing his appointment as Abramson’s successor, Sulzberger called Baquet “a consummate journalist whose reputation as a fierce advocate for his reporters and editors is well-deserved. And importantly, he is an enthusiastic supporter of our push toward further creativity in how we approach the digital expression of our journalism.”

Despite Baquet’s strengths as a reporter and editor, he lacks digital savvy, according to several people who have worked with him. He is very much a journalist from the print era and has shown little interest in developing expertise in online news, three people have said. On that score, Abramson exceeded Baquet despite her own minimal experience and that was one of the reasons Sulzberger chose her over Baquet to lead the newsroom three years ago, the people said.

Twitter Activity

By one measure, neither is overly active on social media: Abramson has tweeted 30 times in the last three years and has 33,000 followers, while Baquet has never posted from his account, which is followed by more than 6,000 people.

Like many newspapers, the Times continues to grapple with how to adapt to the digital age. A newsroom task force commissioned by Abramson and Baquet released a report this month calling for the creation of a team of editors to shape long-term strategy to reach and retain online and mobile readers. The bottom line: The Times has made strides toward becoming a digital newsroom yet needs to do more to keep up with rapidly changing reader habits.

The report addresses head-on newsroom fears that initiatives to mine data, including how far readers scroll down in an article, will “encourage a singular focus on page views and steer us toward lowest-common denominator journalism.” Such fears are “misplaced,” the report’s authors said.

Complicated Role

One section of the report provided a sense of how demanding and complicated Baquet’s new job will be.

“Previous newsroom leaders have had the luxury of being able to focus almost entirely on the newspaper,” the report said. “Today, running the New York Times newsroom means not just overseeing the newspaper but also a vast Web operation, a growing array of mobile products, newsletters, news alerts and social media accounts, as well as an international edition, a video unit and a range of new standalone products.”

Baquet addressed the leaking of the innovation report in a memo to Times employees today.

“As great as we are journalistically, there is much more to be done digitally,” he wrote. “The report calls for us to move with urgency. I couldn’t agree more.”

The Times started a digital-subscription model in 2011 and this year introduced two new subscription products in an effort to draw younger readers, part of Thompson’s plan to rely more on readers for revenue. To keep the momentum going, Baquet will have to remain attuned to the rapidly changing media landscape and willing to experiment and change course if necessary.

“I don’t think there’s going to be one model to replace the one the Internet broke,” said Jay Rosen, journalism professor at New York University. “There will continue to be shifts and changes.”

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