Jill Abramson, Janine Gibson and moral hazard in journalism


The beginning of the end for Jill Abramson, the recently deposed executive editor of the New York Times came, not on a quiet Friday afternoon in May when she was summoned into Arthur Sulzberger’s office but on the afternoon of April 14th, 2014, when the Pulitzer Prize winners were announced. The paper of record earned two well-deserved Pulitzers for Breaking News Photography and Feature Photography. It was completely shut out of categories deemed important by those who keep account of such acknowledgments of excellence in the industry: Breaking News Reporting, Investigative Reporting, Explanatory Reporting, National Reporting, International Reporting and Feature Writing. No credibly savvy observer expected the paper to win any awards for Commentary or Editorial Writing given the current line-up of its editorial writers and op-ed columnists. The much touted, if maudlin and ethically-questionable “Invisible Child” series, garnered a lucrative book deal for its author but in spite of its accompanying energetic promotional campaign failed to receive formal acknowledgment, or indeed any acknowledgment from the Pulitzer Prize Board.

Even in the new post-text era, the Pulitzer omissions stung. The only Times’ finalist for written journalism was the entrepreneurial Dennis Overbye who had submitted his own work for Pulizer consideration, wisely declining to wait for an institutional imprimatur. The mood in the newsroom was one of quiet, dizzily unbelieving, near-complete dejection. There was a growing sense that the widening malaise in the Abramson-led newsroom was now affecting the quality of the newspaper’s work on public offer.

A few miles south, in a sparkling, modern Soho loft cum newsroom and in stark contrast to the darkly funereal mood now engulfing the Times, the Guardian US, helmed by editor Janine Gibson and her deputy Stuart Millar joyfully celebrated the paper’s first Pulitzer, awarded for Public Service in tandem with the Washington Post for “helping through aggressive reporting to spark a debate about the relationship between the government and the public over issues of privacy and security.” It was a moment to savor, a celebration of the public acknowledgment and reward for a once-in-a-generation news story, a journalist’s dream. The substantial personal risks Gibson, Millar and other Guardian staff members involved with the reporting of what has come to be referred to as the “Snowden story” had paid off in spectacular fashion. Their editorial instincts and intuitive understanding from the very beginning (of a story still-being-told) of the possibilities, potential reach and impact of the Snowden disclosures had served them well.

The Pulitzer celebration briefly disguised the fact that at the Guardian US all was not going well of late. Glenn Greenwald, who brought the Snowden story to the Guardian, promptly decamped (with the Snowden files!)for a new for-profit journalistic enterprise with billionaire Pierre Omidyar. Emma Gilbey Keller, the wife of former Times executive editor Bill Keller and a columnist for the newspaper, was in editorial limbo after a less-than-well-received column about a cancer patient was taken down from the Guardian’s website without her explicit consent. A financial journalist who had joined the Guardian some months earlier as a columnist and tasked with overseeing economic coverage was flailing, unable to bring financial heavy-hitters to the table, her role and relevance eclipsed by the Snowden revelations.

Editors were leaving. Recent departures included Matt Seaton who decamped for an editorial role at the New York Times and Gabriel Dance, the paper’s interactive editor who left to become managing editor of The Marshall Project, Bill Keller’s new journalism start-up. (I read The Guardian (UK) religiously and admire its authentic, missionary zeal. While I genuinely admire its accomplishments and verve, I feel less enthusiastic about the Guardian US in part because of its increasing focus on small-bore digital initiatives and its insistence on trumpeting its digital gains. Observant readers notice.)

It seemed that Gibson, enormously ambitious and intelligent, personable and formidably persuasive was beginning to chafe at the limited opportunities afforded by the relatively small-scale Guardian US operation and was increasingly alert to bigger opportunities and enhanced responsibilities. The New York Times appeared to become a shimmering target within her reach. “A meaningful offer [to Gibson] from the Times would have solved a problem for Alan Rusbridger,” a well-placed, longtime Guardian observer told me. Rusbridger, 60, the editor of The Guardian since 1995 is in his serene prime and by all accounts is not going anywhere. On March 6, it was announced that Gibson would become “editor-in-chief of theguardian.com and a deputy editor within the larger organization.”

At some still-unknown point before April 28th, 2014, Jill Abramson, then still executive editor, made an offer to Gibson to come on board the New York Times as a managing editor tasked with overseeing a digital agenda for the paper. Little is known about the precise contours of the offer: when it was made and the form which it took, the ambit of its responsibilities, the compensation package on offer or whether a formal offer letter with its attendant legal obligations had been sent to Gibson. Much of what is known publicly was revealed in the New York Times President and CEO Mark Thompson’s carefully worded, designed-for-leaking April 28th memo to Abramson and first published in The Daily Beast. The document is remarkable for its simultaneous revelation of Gibson’s shrewd careerism: “she reveres you and will need convincing that you’re going to sign up for some more years as editor” and the cool manner in which Abramson, certainly guilty of HR malpractice, left the young editor mercilessly exposed and vulnerable. Gibson would later tell the New Yorker’s Ken Auletta that she was “mortified that these discussions are in public”. One is encouraged to come to New York City to pursue one’s dreams, it is however less advisable to share those dreams indiscriminately.

Abramson knew from her days at the Wall Street Journal and as the New York Times’ Washington Bureau Chief that a diluted co-managing position in any organization was the single most effective way of neutering or derailing a competitor. It is inconceivable that Abramson would think Dean Baquet, already passed over once for the top spot, would simply sit back passively and accept a dilution of his role at the Times while a young co-managing editor was brought in for what would be a humiliatingly public (and ultimately inept) defenestration. During Abramson’s tenure as executive editor, an entire managerial layer at the New York Times, with vast swaths of institutional history and who would historically have provided a buffer or mediating counsel for an executive editor — Jim Roberts, Jonathan Landman, Rick Berke and John Geddes left the paper and by no accident.

Abramson attempted to install in their stead, staffer/loyalists, overwhelmingly a handful of young women whose work she had championed but in the end that gambit failed. They were simply too inexperienced to be of any substantive help. There is a deeply interesting moment here during this “Journalism After Snowden” panel convened in February at Columbia University (55:10) which is particularly revelatory. Gibson attempts to interject, Abramson coolly speaks right over her and continues speaking for several minutes. Gibson is quieted. It captures the dynamic of Abramson’s interactions with many of her former staffers.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kRoxtIbVWWw

Abramson’s most profound miscalculation however lay in assuming that a traditionally-trained journalist who had jumped through the usual hoops, even one as skilled as Gibson, would be the best person to spearhead a digital agenda at the Times in a furiously churning and rapidly evolving digital/news ecosystem. Both Abramson and the next executive editor, Dean Baquet, will in the end be perceived as transitional figures. I suspect Baquet will be an overwhelming success as executive editor of The New York Times. He is masterful at reading complex situations and responding effectively and strategically.

It is however the post-Baquet landscape which interests me the most. Baquet’s successor will not be a traditional journalist but will be a digital native, someone immersed in digital life with an intuitive, tactile understanding of what is required to thrive there. She will most likely emerge full-fledged from R&D.