A Failure of Leadership at the New York Times
The New York Times – perhaps the world’s most iconic newspaper – is good at a great many things. Leadership, it appears, just isn’t one of them.
The Times continues to suffer from the fallout of a decision on May 9th by publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. to fire outspoken executive editor Jill Abramson, the first woman to hold the job, just three years after he appointed her.
The Abramson story appeared, at first blush, to be about pay equity. After finding out that she was making less than her predecessors, Abramson reportedly fought with Sulzberger to be paid on equal footing with her male counterparts. The culmination of that fight was a termination that has many questioning top leaders at the Times.
And yet, while pay equity may have been the spark that set off this battle, it was certainly not the only cause of the conflict.
I believe the Abramson-Sulzberger melodrama is a classic example of what happens when an organization fails to build strong leadership capacity. It’s not just the New York Times; this is an industry that lags others in identifying and developing leaders.
However, even with the newspaper industry’s sorry track record in leadership development, this is also a cautionary tale for leaders in a wide variety of industries. As the Times has demonstrated, bad leadership is costly, humiliating and can ultimately undermine an entire organization if left unchecked. It can erode employee engagement and destabilize organizational culture, while also making it difficult to attract and retain top talent.
Ironically, the Times controversy erupted during a bounce-back year. A massive increase in the number of digital-only subscribers helped boost profits and established the paper as a leader in the digital-news revolution, creating and marketing new online products to rave reviews. Yet this success was clearly not enough to save Abramson.
So what else is going on here? I believe there are inherent flaws in the leadership structure of most newspapers.
Newspapers are divided into two distinct operations: editorial, which controls the news content of the paper; and business, which takes care of advertising, marketing, circulation and other revenue-generating aspects. This church-and-state division is designed to ensure that, as much as possible, advertising interests do not intrude on newsgathering operations.
This structure is revealed in the way leaders are promoted to oversee each operation. While executives with wide variety of experience and credentials lead business operations, on the editorial side, technical experts (journalists) take on the top jobs.
Although the theory behind this is sound – journalistic sensibilities are not easily embraced by business types – it does create an internal tension.
By the very nature of their training and expertise, journalists are as a breed adversarial and tend to resist, even distrust, authority figures. Not an ideal starting point for strong leadership.
I often find that when technical experts assume leadership roles, they fail to truly embrace their roles as leaders. Their first passion – the technical part of their job – takes priority and the leadership responsibilities are often ignored or viewed with disdain.
In addition, few journalists who rise to the top jobs in their newspapers ever receive formal leadership training. Coaching, mentoring and other leadership development methods that are standard in big organizations are simply not accepted as part of newspaper culture. As a result, it is not unusual for journalist leaders to spar with their peers, thus prompting spectacular, career-ending implosions.
A generation ago, a firing like this may not have been such a big deal. But it just doesn’t cut it today. Most of the world’s leading companies have established cultures that put a real emphasis on leadership as a differentiator and competitive advantage.
How badly did the Times do with its leadership challenge? As we get deeper into the melodrama, there are complicating and mitigating factors that reveal how this was a failure of leadership at many different levels of the company.
Sulzberger described Abramson as an abrasive and polarizing figure who sparked fear and loathing in the Times’ newsroom.
“During her tenure, I heard repeatedly from her newsroom colleagues, women and men, about a series of issues, including arbitrary decision-making, a failure to consult and bring colleagues with her, inadequate communication and the public mistreatment of colleagues,” he said in a prepared statement. “I discussed these issues with Jill herself several times and warned her that, unless they were addressed, she risked losing the trust of both masthead and newsroom.
“We all wanted her to succeed. It became clear, however, that the gap was too big to bridge and ultimately I concluded that she had lost the support of her masthead colleagues and could not win it back.”
There are several inconsistencies with Sulzberger’s remarks, some of which reveal the real issue here was his relationship with Abramson and not her relationship with the other senior editors.
Many reporters in the newsroom, despite confirming Abramson’s abrasive nature, were nonetheless “shocked” at her departure, suggesting that she enjoyed some support among rank and file editorial employees.
As for her “masthead colleagues,” Abramson made it a hallmark of her tenure as executive editor to promote women colleagues to senior masthead positions. Although that alone would not guarantee support, or erase her personal shortcomings, it does raise questions about Sulzberger’s assertions.
When all is said and done, the only thing we can be completely confident about is that Sulzberger and Abramson were in almost constant conflict. And that it would be unfair to describe that conflict as based entirely on personality.
Notwithstanding the mood in the newsroom, Abramson made it clear she was upset about being paid less than the man who preceded her.
After making this discovery earlier this year, Times insiders reported that she confronted Sulzberger and other “top brass” at the newspaper, demanding that she be paid on an equal footing. Eventually, Sulzberger would relent, twice boosting her pay but only after the discussion became quite combative, and Abramson hired a lawyer to represent her in the negotiations.
The dispute over pay likely exacerbated a relationship that had been strained for some time, according to newspaper insiders. In a multi-part blog series on Abramson’s firing, New Yorker columnist Ken Auletta was able to confirm that in performance reviews, Abramson was cautioned that her “brusque” manner, and capacity for mistreating her employees in public, had to be curbed.
The mitigating factor here, of course, is that newspapers have never welcomed or tolerated gentle souls. Further, that many of Abramson’s predecessors, all men, were well-known and even celebrated for their gruffness.
The debate over Abramson’s termination – and whether in part she was turfed because she was being held to a different standard than the men who once held her position – will continue for some time.
Did Abramson ultimately fail because she was a technical expert promoted beyond her leadership capacity? Or was this a case of the senior most leadership at the paper – Sulzberger in particular – sowing the seeds of future conflict by paying her less than male predecessors?
Ultimately, both Sulzberger and Abramson will have to own the failure of their relationship. Leadership requires people of different backgrounds, perspectives and personalities to work together for the good of their organizations. Sulzberger and Abramson were unable to live up to that basic leadership obligation.
From the publisher’s office, down through the executive editor, this venerable news organization has, through self-inflicted wounds, eroded its leadership capacity.
The Times has always tried to live by the motto that it aspires to publish “all the news that’s fit to print.” That will prove to be a most difficult accomplishment unless it can identify and develop a new generation of leaders that are fit to lead.
Vince Molinaro is a New York Times-best selling author and Managing Director of the Leadership Practice within Knightsbridge Human Capital Solutions. His passion and focus have been to help senior leaders and executives create compelling organizations that drive sustainable growth.
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