Packing, throwing out old stuff (files & cookies) as I move into a new office as exec editor. Excited & nervous. pic.twitter.com/QkaKl0t
— Jill Abramson (@JillAbramson) August 31, 2011
Belated thoughts on the big developments at the New York Times recently:
I have started twice in the past week to blog about developments at the New York Times. First, I was going to blog about the initial report of the Times Innovation Team, which raised lots of issues for all newsrooms trying to transform digitally. Digital transformation has been the focus of my work at Digital First Media, and I was going to draw some lessons from the Times recommendations for Project Unbolt.
Then I was going to blog about the firing of Jill Abramson as executive editor of the New York Times. I will post some observations about Abramson later in this piece, but I doubt I can add much insight beyond what’s already been written.
Mostly, I want to call my DFM colleagues’ attention (and the attention of everyone trying to change the culture of entrenched print newsrooms) to the full report of the innovation team (leaked to Buzzfeed and both more blunt and more detailed than the summary report). You should read the full report (you can ignore the sanitized version). Then you should read Josh Benton’s piece on Nieman Lab.
If you think your newsroom is making pretty good progress in developing digital skills and products, the Times report will call bullshit on you, just as it did on the Times digital efforts.
And let’s be clear: The Times’ digital efforts outshine every print newsroom. Your newsroom didn’t do Snowfall and your newsroom didn’t do Invisible Child and your newsroom doesn’t have a development team, R&D lab or photo blog as awesome as the Times’ (unless you work for the Times). I guarantee you that most of the issues the Times report raises are issues for your newsroom. And probably more urgent for your newsroom.
Liz Heron, a digital star who worked the print-giant trifecta of the Washington Post, New York Times and Wall Street Journal, posted this on Facebook about the innovation report: “Here, in a nutshell, is why I left The New York Times, which some people might have thought was a little crazy at the time. For all its digital success, the NYT culture is still very print-focused.”
Liz works at Facebook now, and your digital stars will be headed to digital-only operations if your newsroom doesn’t start giving them hope for genuine, deep and lasting transformation.
I have already written Project Unbolt blog posts about some of the issues raised in the Times report, and I’ll be blogging about more. The report says:
We aim ambitious stories for Sunday because it is our largest print readership, but weekends are slowest online.
I’ve already blogged once about unbolting enterprise from “Sunday story” thinking, and I’ll be blogging more about it soon.
I’m not going to blog in detail about the innovation report now, though you might expect more quotes from it in upcoming Project Unbolt posts. My “unbolting” language might not fit with the Times culture, but the innovation report was a clarion call for the Times to unbolt its processes and culture from the print processes and culture of the most revered print brand in the history of journalism. If the Times needs to unbolt, then your newsroom needs to unbolt. Now.
Now for some observations on the firing of Abramson:
- The publisher has the right to hire and fire editors. But Jill Abramson was exactly the kind of editor that we had every right to expect when she was hired in 2011. If this week’s firing represented a failure, it was a failure of Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. to hire the right executive editor and a failure of the publisher to stand by the editor he had hired.
- The next time a male editor is fired for being too brusque or pushy or for not consulting a managing editor from the start about courting a possible co-managing editor or for asking for more money will be the first time. (If you haven’t been reading, those have been some of the rumored or speculated reasons for the Abramson firing.)
- Commentary on this topic by women has been better than the commentary by men (which makes me reluctant to comment). I especially commend to your attention the pieces by Susan Glasser, Emily Bell, Rachel Sklar, Rebecca Traister, Geneva Overholser, Ann Friedman and Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan. Just last Monday, Sullivan blogged about the impact Abramson has had in promoting and recruiting women to top leadership jobs at the Times. She was blogging about a panel at the International Journalism Festival that I attended and mentioned in a blog post.
- I don’t recommend reading (but will link to it anyway) last year’s piece by Dylan Byers, based almost exclusively on unnamed sources and Dean Baquet (Abramson’s successor, who was managing editor at the time), about how Abramson had lost the Times newsroom, unless you also read Amanda Hess’ piece on how women in the newsroom admired Abramson (also based on unnamed sources). By the way, if you’re taking this week’s firing as proof that Byers was right, you’re wrong. If she had truly lost the newsroom, she wouldn’t have lasted for another year.
- I wrote last year in response to the Byers piece that I was told once that I had “lost” a newsroom (as with Abramson, that was BS). I also, reportedly like Abramson, had a publisher that wanted to lie about the firing. When I was fired as editor of the Minot Daily News in 1992, the publisher said I had left by mutual agreement. That wasn’t true. Staying as editor was not an option. What I agreed to were the terms of my being fired. I admire Abramson for rejecting Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr.’s reported proposal to lie about her departure.
- The Times has made subscriptions the heart of its business model. Doesn’t it owe those subscribers a better explanation of its leadership change? Update: Sulzberger has elaborated. I think he still owes his subscribers a better explanation.
- Other good pieces to read include posts by Ken Auletta and Mathew Ingram and Andrew Beaujon. Vox has a good curation of news and commentary on the firing.
- Times CEO Mark Thompson’s response to all the discussion of the firing was weak and obtuse.
I don’t know how much gender played into Jill Abramson’s hiring or firing. She was a hell of an accomplished journalist who deserved a shot at editor, and lots of editors get forced out for valid reasons and for phony reasons. What is undeniable is that she was treated differently in the firing than any male editor you’ve ever seen fired.
I wish Baquet well. Like Abramson, he’s a pioneer (first African American executive editor of the Times). But what the Times needs now is its first digitally accomplished executive editor. The Times made extraordinary digital strides under Abramson, as it did under Bill Keller and as I’m sure it will under Baquet.
But all of those editors were hard-core print journalists at heart. Abramson hasn’t tweeted since 2012. She had tweeted seven times when named editor. Her eighth is at the top of this post. She’s up to 30. Baquet hasn’t tweeted, (hasn’t even updated his Twitter profile, which says he’s managing editor). Twitter isn’t the only measure of a journalist’s digital achievement or comfort, but it’s a pretty reliable one. (Keller was more active on Twitter than Abramson and Baquet combined, though he famously called it stupid.)
I applaud Abramson and Baquet for their journalism achievements and for being pioneering leaders as journalists of their gender and race.
But the best reason for changing top editors at the Times was that innovation report and the urgency of the challenges it presented. And the professional achievements of Abramson and Baquet are deeply similar and both thoroughly old-school. Despite their vast journalism experience, neither is the ideal leader for a digital transformation.
Newsrooms need more diversity in gender and race among their top leaders. But more urgently, they need leaders who can guide digital transformation. Newsrooms can diversify by recruiting and promoting leaders who excel at journalism and understand digital strategy and execution, journalists like Liz Heron, Robyn Tomlin, Mandy Jenkins, Matt Thompson and many more.
But for now, Baquet needs to lead an urgent response to the innovation report.