by Rachel Hills
Jill Abramson’s new book “Merchants of Truth,” recently excerpted in New York Magazine, isn’t just a fascinating look at the transformations in the media industry over the last decade. It’s also insightful when it comes to the matter of women and power (and power more generally, no matter what your gender).
Here are five lessons I took from Abramson’s tenure as the executive editor of the New York Times.
1. Surround yourself with people who support your vision.
When I worked in magazines, I was always struck by how quickly publications transformed when they got a new editor in chief. Magazines I previously loved rapidly became terrible, ones I thought were mediocre became briefly magnificent, and always always within a few months you’d see an exodus of the staff who’d worked for the old EIC and an influx of staff who’d worked with the new EIC in her previous role.
This isn’t unique to publishing - friends in other industries (fashion comes to mind) tell me it happens there, too. And usually, it wasn’t a result of people being fired so much as old staff hating the new vision and the new boss wanting to bring on people they trusted. You can’t bring your vision to life without people on your team who support your vision.
When Abramson was offered the role of executive editor by then NYT publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr, she was given a microscopic window to choose her own 2IC.
“Who are you thinking about for managing editor?” Sulzberger asked.”
Thinking I wouldn’t get the job, I had not put together my dream team of other editors.
One beat later, Sulzberger was making his own suggestion for role: Dean Baquet, his second choice for executive editor.
“What about Dean?” he continued.
One of the comments on the Abramson’s NYMag article suggests that she might have fared better Baquet (who, spoiler alert, succeeds Abramson as executive editor two and a half years later) and Abramson had been made his 2IC. But it strikes me that the real issue here is that Abramson’s most important teammate was a competitor rather than an ally.
2. Always ask about money.
During that first conversation with Sulzberger, Abramson describes feeling “light-headed” at the news that she had been offered the role of executive editor. As a result, she doesn’t ask him about salary before accepting the position.
Later, after asking one of her masthead editors to study the issue of pay equity in the newsroom, she is told she is “exhibit A.”
The numbers showed that during my eight years as managing editor, my salary lagged behind one of the male masthead editors I outranked. My current salary was what [previous executive editor Bill] Keller’s starting salary had been in 2003, a full decade earlier.
3. If you don’t enforce your priorities, someone else will enforce theirs on you.
Years ago in a job interview, I was asked how I would manage competing requests for my time. I remember saying something about evaluating which tasks were the most urgent/important and doing those first. (Clearly not a terrible answer, since I ended up getting the job.)
A couple of weeks ago, looking at an inbox full of client requests that didn’t align with my schedule for the day, I reflected that it was equally important to not let other people’s priorities dictate yours.
Abramson’s essay is a case in point. Abramson was hired as executive editor largely for her reporting skills - which she put to use driving Pulitzer-winning stories like the NYT’s investigation of Apple’s business practices in China and David Barboza’s exposé of the vast wealth secretly acquired by family members of China’s rulers. But much of her day-today was spent in meeting rooms talking about “new digital products meant to generate revenue, like a cooking app.”
This isn’t to place the blame on Abramson: she was editing the NYT at a moment of enormous upheaval for the whole industry (which is what her book is about) and she clearly wasn’t surrounded by allies.
But it is a reminder that if you don’t set boundaries around how you spend your time, someone else will set them for you.
4. Stay open to new ideas.
At the heart of Abramson’s essay is the central conflict between her desire to maintain the NYT’s credibility as a news organization, and the desire of the new CEO Mark Thompson to make the newspaper competitive with new online competitors like Buzzfeed, Vice, and the Huffington Post.
Where Abramson wants to play to the NYT’s strength in news and investigations, Thompson wants to create monetizable subscription products. Where Thompson wanted to increase revenue through native advertising, Abramson wanted to maintain a strict division between journalists who wrote sponsored content and those who wrote for the rest of the paper.
At one point, during a meeting where Thompson suggests that news staff develop ideas for revenue-generating content, Abramson snaps and declares, “If that’s what you expect, you have the wrong executive editor.”
Ultimately, both Abramson and Thompson were right - the NYT needed to develop new sources of revenue and it needed to protect its credibility as a new source. And at the conclusion of her essay, Abramson graciously acknowledges that under then-publisher Sulzberger’s leadership the Times navigated the digital disruption better than most of its competitors.
5. Avoiding conflict will bite you in the ass.
Abramson learns that the Guardian’s Janine Gibson is returning to the UK, and wants to offer her a job at the NYT. “The idea of having a true partner, another woman who had made brave journalism decisions and was forging her way into the future, appealed to me immensely,” she writes.
There’s just one problem: Gibson and Dean Baquet, Abramson’s deputy, don’t get on. On the advice of CEO Mark Thompson, Abramson stalls on sharing with Baquet that she will be offering Gibson the job, telling him instead that she will be considering several people. Baquet soon finds out she lied to him, goes to Sulzberger to complain, and the next morning Abramson is fired and told that Baquet will be the new executive editor.
Wanting to avoid giving someone news that will upset them, or not wanting to own up to something that will make you look bad, is normal. Most people hate confrontation. But dealing with potential conflicts as soon as they arise is always better than letting them fester.
And as Abramson’s example shows, there’s no quicker way to escalate an unpleasant situation than to obfuscate in an attempt to avoid it.
Did you read the Abramson essay, too? What lessons did you take from it?