‘An issue with management in the newsroom’

THE sudden departure of Jill Abramson, the executive editor of The New York Times, caused a torrent of comment in the blogosphere. The first assumptions were that she never would have been sacked if she were a man. The publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, after an opaque announcement, added some reasons for firing her: “Arbitrary decision-making, a failure to consult and bring colleagues with her, inadequate communication and the public mistreatment of colleagues.”

That did not get him off the hook with the women.  Norah O’Donnell of CBS This Morning asked Ken Auletta, sweetly, “Were there other editors of The New York Times who were difficult-to-work-for hotheads?”

Well, yes. Abe Rosenthal comes to mind. My own departure from The New York Times newsroom in 1985, although self-inflicted, was described by Ruth Gilbert: “There is a report that you were seen running from the Times followed by a gigantic explosion.” After I told Abe that I was quitting to go to Newsweek, he became enraged, pushing me out of his office, and then running after me through the newsroom, yelling, “You ungrateful bastard!” 

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I remember journalists looking up from their desks, shocked. But they didn’t look surprised. Abe was a notorious hothead, but the most brilliant editor I ever worked for. And The New York Times of that era made enormous, exciting improvements in all areas, including design. (For example: The crusades like the Pentagon Papers, the investigative teams that brought in prize-winning stories like the Marine Barracks bombing, and the four-section daily.) Abe believed that pictures could tell news stories, too, and moved Lou Silverstein, the greatest art director in the history of newspapers, to a position of trust and power.

Roy Peter Clark of Poynter asked on Twitter, “Who would you prefer as your boss, a great journalist or a great manager? If u can’t have both.” My fulsome answer: “The one who’d make a great news publication.” David Hyder, tweeted back from Yanbu on the Red Sea, “You can only manage what you understand.”

So it is. Occasionally you get a great manager who is also a great editor. I worked for John Carroll at the Baltimore Sun and the Los Angeles Times. He was a thought leader. And he had vision. Thought leaders are more effective if they can do as well as think. And John could do it better than anyone in those newsrooms; he made brilliant assignments, and he would work into the night polishing a story himself. Moreover, after the first year at the LA Times he had quietly rearranged the news department in a way that would make Machiavelli proud. The truculent old guard was sidetracked. Desks disappeared like Trotsky in official Soviet photos, so that you couldn’t quite remember who had been there. And the paper won seven Pulitzer in his first full year.

His successor, Dean Baquet, could not turn back the aggressive billionaire stupidity of Sam Zell, and quit. People liked Dean, too, but some of the energy went out of the paper. For one thing he moved the designer Joe Hutchinson from Deputy Managing Editor to Creative Director. If you work in an ad agency you may not think this is a demotion.

Tyrannical monsters like Abe, or Jann Wenner, my boss at Rolling Stone in the 70s, step on a lot of feelings. They unnerve employes with unpredictable, bull-headed orders. They play favorites. I enjoyed pet status with both, which did not make me popular, but I learned a great deal, and benefited from the constant pushing. These tyrants enabled my success, as a designer. And with an uneven staff that wasn’t easy to replace (Abe because of the union, and Jann because of inexperience and budget), favorites may be the only way to go.

In my mind they are both great managers. Look at they way Abe created stars like Joel Brinkley, John Darnton, Tom Friedman, Paul Goldberger,  Alan Riding, and John Nobel Wilford. As Jann did with Tim Cahill, Cameron Crowe, Joe Eszterhas, Mikal Gilmore, Kurt Loder, Joe Klein, Greil Marcus, Matt Taibbi and Charles M. Young,

Ask these guys (noted, all guys) how they found Abe and Jann as managers. And ask the readers what they thought of the publications. No one remembers if Harold Ross or H. L. Mencken or Walter Lippman or Harold Hayes were “good managers.” But anyone who studies the history of the media must regard the New Yorker, American Mercury, New York World, and Esquire as the best publications in the 20th century.

After Abe retired (interestingly no Times executive editor since has made it to the 65-years mandatory retirement age), he was replaced with the smiling, distinguished Max Frankel, Abe’s old rival. Punch Sulzberger, Arthur’s father, wanted him to “make the newsroom a happy place again,” according to Frankel’s memoirs. No doubt a bit of healing was called for, but his impending arrival and his lack of interest in visual journalism (reflected in his years as Sunday editor), lead me to consider the Newsweek job in the first place. Sure enough, Frankel took a while to even appoint a single design director, Tom Bodkin. And longer to put him on the masthead. Watching masthead moves is a kind of Kremlinology, but the result could be seen in the paper, which visually kept losing energy for more than a decade, despite Tom’s considerable efforts.

Howell Raines, appointed as Arthur’s Patton, brought back some visual energy. It coasted under Bill Keller (although, to be fair, there were enormous distractions as advertising declined and the business side tried to figure out a new model.) Jill made Bodkin a deputy managing editor. His redesign of the IHT (now the INYT) culminates the work he’s done with the typography of the paper. And Jill pushed Ian Adelman, a genius of digital publication designer, on the effort to rethink the digital product. Both Tom and Ian are good managers, and they’ve made the visual brand shine like the glory days of Lou Silverstein.

AND now we have Dean Baquet. He’s a team player, and will try to calm the waters. His arrival puts him at an unfortunate disadvantage, but Dean is no slouch at newsroom politics, either. I remember how he moved aside his co-managing editor rival, John Montorio (now at Huff Post). But what about the overall presentation and visual content of The Times?

David Carr weighed in, surprisingly, on the side of the boss: “To the extent that The New York Times does anything remarkable, it emerges from collaboration and shared enterprise. It’s worth remembering that its legacy begets an excellence that surpasses the particulars of who produces it.”

Well that may be. But who is managing the managers? It seems to me that if you have an executive editor who is scaring people, the publisher needs to fix the situation. And it’s a lot easier to build communication skills and collaboration in a direct-report than to build talent and zeal. This firing was more Arthur’s failure than Jill’s. This 30-year cycle of crazy energy followed by well-managed lethargy must be obvious to the owners.

The proof is in the paper. You get a great publication with an editor who makes things happen. Jill Abramson (like Abe Rosenthal and Howell Raines) may have rough spots, but what a great news publication the Times was in their years, in print and now in digital. And how good has it looked!