The Prettiest Girl at the Party

Jill Abramson and the New York Times 


Let’s talk about Jill Abramson.

Jill Abramson, the first female executive editor to lead the New York Times. Jill Abramson, who took pride in having brought gender parity to the NYT masthead. Jill Abramson, who presided over an enterprise that won Pulitzers and made money. Jill Abramson, who was hit by a truck. Jill Abramson, who was brusque.

Jill Abramson, who yesterday was ousted at the New York Times, where she built her name as a smart and tough editor, with deep passion for the instititution and deep appreciation of why it mattered.

Plenty has been written about why this happened, and how. We don’t know all the facts, but we do know that a lot of well-sourced reporters are on it. The story is, as they say, developing.

But I want to talk about Jill Abramson.

Rebecca Traister wrote a typically smart, insightful piece about the stunning swiftness and coldness of Abramson’s ouster and called it “singularly humiliating.”

But “humiliating” feels like the wrong word. It implies that Abramson, herself, is humiliated.

To be honest, the only behavior that struck me as shameful and dodgy here was that of Arthur Sulzberger Jr., publisher of the paper and chairman of The New York Times Company. Reports are that Abramson refused to resign, so she was fired. Her name was off the masthead mere hours later.

In terse remarks to the staff, Sulzberger explained the decision as “an issue with management in the newsroom.” He did not mention Abramson’s almost two decades at the Times, nor say a gracious word about her Pulitzer-winning, Snowfalling, Margaret-Sullivan-appointing, NYT-masthead-gender-parity-equalizing tenure.

Abramson was let go in this way not because of a failure of business or journalism — the point of the enterprise, lest we forget! — but because Arthur Sulzberger is himself a bad manager, and managed this situation spectacularly badly. (Again.) Instead of having the vision to plan ahead and orchestrate an orderly transition, Sulzberger has launched his new editor, Dean Baquet, into a storyline more worthy of Game of Thrones than the nation’s most august bastion of the fourth estate. Baquet, the first black executive editor at the New York Times, should have been able to plan his ascension and enjoy his own storyline. Instead it is forever bound up in the sad, ugly drama of an abrupt and unhappy exit.

Leaving aside Abramson’s flaws and Baquet’s virtues, the “how” of this decision was all Sulzberger, and its flawed execution just accrues to his legacy of mismanagement, public airing of dirty laundry, and massive misjudgment.

But! This is the deal we make with the world. We interact within it. We move up with the help of great managers and are hindered by crappy ones. Sometimes we get recognized and sometimes we don’t. For women, that “sometimes” seems to happen all too often. But the key question is: What is the source of your power? And, what is the source of your joy?

Jill Abramson shed the power to manage the New York Times yesterday — and that is some huge power. But she didn’t shed HER power. She walked out of that place with a tremendous record and the capital she had built in the job she loved. What was the source of her power? Her work, the legacy she has built doing the work, and how much she cared about the work. That was also the source of her joy.

Does this mean she was a great manager? Probably not. The reports that have emerged make it pretty clear that there were problems. “Mercurial” was the adjective the NYT itself used, and when I started typing “mercurial steve j-” into Google it autocompleted to “Jobs,” so she’s in good company on that point. But if there were reports that she wasn’t universally loved and drove some staffers crazy and maybe she had favorites and was hard to read and hard to reach and hard to predict — fine, let’s just assume that’s all true.

And let’s also assume that Dean Baquet will be an outstanding executive editor, because he, too, has had a long and storied career, he too cares passionately (so passionately he quit the top job at the LA Times to protest cuts) — and it certainly seems like he is better at cultivating strategic relationships, so there is that! (And I will forgive him his use of the word “bitchy” here and word “ambition” here if he takes a cue from NYT social media editor Lexi Mainland here.) The NYT is a national treasure and an essential one, so I do root for its continued success.

But. All that can be true and it can still be true that Jill Abramson was treated shockingly badly, dismissed faster and harsher than any predecessor for far less, had much less of a buffer zone, margin for excellence but not for error, was offered much lower tolerance, was on a much shorter leash. The Glass Cliff is real.

(I will leave aside any criticism of her voice, which is so appalling that I will just leave it there, if only to say that I love her voice and FERVENTLY hope she gets picked up for some awesome voiceover work in the next Pixar flick.)

But humiliated? Jill Abramson? No.

The New York Times is a great and storied institution. We know she was happy there, because she said so, and because she had it tattooed on her back. But here I hope Abramson can take a lesson from her old colleague Nate Silver. During negotiations for Nate Silver’s contract at the NYT, Silver’s lawyer-agent reportedly said, smugly, that his client was “the prettiest girl at the party.” Abramson said, sorry, no dice: “The New York Times is always the prettiest girl at the party.” Silver ended up decamping for ESPN. Abramson was sorry to lose a superstar, but was unapologetic. To her, the New York Times was the superstar.

They were both right, of course, though the terminology should make any thinking person cringe — not just because it’s gross and sexist, but also because it implies ceding your power to external forces. Nate Silver didn’t need to do that — and neither does Jill Abramson.

I had a meeting with Jill two years ago, in her office. She asked me about my career trajectory, and how I had transitioned from law to journalism to tech, across industries. I said I knew how to create good content, I can spot talent, and I work hard.

She said, “I’m so glad you didn’t say you were lucky.”

Your power does not come from luck. Your power comes from you, and what you invest in it every day, in the work and the sweat and the giving a damn. That is what you carry around with you, even as you walk out of your fancy top job for the last time. That is what you carry into the next thing, and there will be a next thing, because you are good and because that’s what you do. That is your capital.

One more Jill Abramson anecdote: After Dylan Byers’ hit piece last year, she admitted that it had made her cry.

“I cried,” she said. “I should say it went right off me, but I’m just being honest. I did cry. But by the next morning, I wasn’t completely preoccupied by it anymore. I had my cry and that was that.”

Who is the prettiest girl at the party? The one who doesn’t need you to tell her.

Rachel Sklar is a writer/entrepreneur and founder of TheLi.st. She spent years as a full-time media reporter at Mediabistro, Huffington Post & Mediaite and still writes frequently on the subject. She can be brusque.