On Wednesday, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr., publisher of the New York Times and chairman of The New York Times Company, mystified many of his employees by announcing that he had just fired Jill Abramson, who had been the paper's executive editor since 2011. He didn't explain why, and declined to substantively answer questions on the subject posed by the journalists he employs.
So: Sulzberger unceremoniously dispatches the first female head editor of the most important and prestigious newspaper in the world without explanation. Prior former editors, including the one who was there during the troubles with plagiarism and fabrication and war-mongering backed by trumped-up intelligence from disreputable sources, received gracious, dignity-preserving send-offs. (In fact, the one who was there during all the troubles got a moose.) Sulzberger then sort of sits there looking like an idiot while other outlets report that Abramson's firing came shortly after she complained that her compensation was less than that of her immediate male predecessor.
This isn't a piece about whether or not Jill Abramson was a good or a bad editor, or what led her to be unceremoniously axed this week. I don't work for the Times, I don't personally know any of the players involved, and I don't pretend to know What Actually Happened. I am just a guy who makes fun of Times opinion columnists and does the crossword (Sundays through Thursdays). This is a piece about how the actual act of the axing became a P.R. disaster of nearly Bundy Ranchian proportions, thanks to the man who inherited the paper from his father, who inherited it from his father, who inherited it from his father-in-law, the last man in this chain of publishers who had to do anything resembling work to earn the position.
Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr. is sometimes referred to as "Pinch," a mocking variation of his father's nickname, "Punch" (probably more often by media writers looking to sound knowing than by normal humans he knows). It is a mocking nickname because almost no one who comes into contact with Sulzberger has any respect for him, as a businessman or publisher or intellect. Years ago he was undeservedly handed what was then a great prize. Now he is responsible for preserving that prize in a recognizable form for the future. It is just really, really clear that he is not up to the task.
When the media reporter writes Times Kremlinology, it is customary to refer to the mood of The Newsroom as an undifferentiated whole, as in "It's not that Abramson was adored in the newsroom," or "Abramson has become a source of widespread frustration and anxiety within the Times newsroom." Most of the time, we hear what The Newsroom thinks of its editors. Usually they are annoyed with their editors, because otherwise media reporters wouldn't be writing media reporting about it. Few bother to measure the newsroom's feelings about the person who's really in charge. This is, I think, because the answer would just be too predictable to be noteworthy. Does anyone imagine that Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. has the respect of The Newsroom?
Times journalists think of the boss (correctly) as a dilettante and a flake, whose ignorance and insecurity leave him vulnerable to scammy corporate gurus and management fads. Sulzberger would probably say, as I'm sure he did to Abramson on multiple occasions, that Times journalists are too pretentious and idealistic to understand what it will take to make the New York Times work as a business in the 21st Century. But I find it hard to believe that the business side at the Times has any more respect for Sulzberger — and his flailing, transparently desperate attempts to make the business work — than the supposedly lofty-minded newsroom veterans do.
Arthur Sulzberger is in over his head. He's clearly not up to the challenge of being the publisher of the nation's last newspaper during the newspaper extinction era.
In some accounts of the Abramson firing, the last straw was an "innovation report" prepared, at Sulzberger's request, by his son, Arthur Gregg Sulzberger, a reporter at the paper. The report describes the Times as existentially endangered, and unable to compete with nimbler digital journalism startups. The idea is that Abramson was unable to steer the Times toward its glorious digital future, and had to go. (I picture Joseph Cotten in stagey old-man makeup telling a faceless media reporter: "Well, Pinch and I had a disagreement about social. I suppose Pinch died without ever truly having a social strat…")
The report essentially identifies a set of tech-related problems that need to be addressed, and then packages those problems with a set of ideological recommendations to change the "culture" of the Times. The paper needs to improve the backend, and needs better tools for creating digital content, the report says. OK, sure, that sounds good! But also:
“The very first step … should be a deliberate push to abandon our current metaphors of choice — ‘The Wall’ and ‘Church and State’ — which project an enduring need for division. Increased collaboration, done right, does not present any threat to our values of journalistic independence,” the report says.
Ah, yes, you mean this kind of "innovation." The report also suggests "TED-style talks" because everyone and everything in the 21st century is terrible and stupid.
It's probably true that the Times is full of print-era dinosaurs in positions of authority. But… so what? The product is generally good. Not only that, but the Times is in the enviable position of being the last national newspaper left standing. It doesn't need to worry about Vox.com. It doesn't need to sweat losing Nate Silver. They can hire another one. It is the business side's responsibility to sell that product. It is Arthur Sulzberger, Jr.'s job to ensure the survival of this institution without sacrificing the things that actually make it valuable. The answer is not TED talks or branded content that looks deceptively like non-branded content.
But if the end goal is to break down the wall between business and editorial, and to make Times reporters waste as much time on bullshit marketing activities as "digital natives" do, then the report is a masterstroke. A.G. Sulzberger might be a lot cleverer than his father. (I'm not the only one who thinks so!) I'm sure the business side can't wait for his ascension.