As any crisis communications consultant will note, a company is in a crisis when it’s forced to publicly compare the compensation levels of key departed executives. And that’s precisely the situation in which New York Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. found himself today.
In a move that the media world still hasn’t fully digested, Sulzberger yesterday fired Executive Editor Jill Abramson, who took over the New York Times newsroom from Bill Keller in 2011. Newsroom (mis)management was the reason for the move, Sulzberger has told the world. Yet amid the commotion, Ken Auletta yesterday reported in the New Yorker that Abramson’s departure came after some internal combustion over pay equity. “Abramson discovered that her pay and her pension benefits as both executive editor and, before that, as managing editor were considerably less than the pay and pension benefits of Bill Keller, the male editor whom she replaced in both jobs.”
New York Times spokeswoman Eileen Murphy yesterday attempted to kill that story by saying that Abramson’s compensation was “directly comparable” to that of Keller, among other characterizations.
Now Sulzberger has come forth with more detail in a memo to staff that Capital New York has obtained. Here’s a key passage:
It is simply not true that Jill’s compensation was significantly less than her predecessors. Her pay is comparable to that of earlier executive editors. In fact, in 2013, her last full year in the role, her total compensation package was more than 10% higher than that of her predecessor, Bill Keller, in his last full year as Executive Editor, which was 2010. It was also higher than his total compensation in any previous year.
The memo goes on to say that compensation “played no part whatsoever” in the decision to change leadership at the New York Times. “The reason – the only reason – for that decision was concerns I had about some aspects of Jill’s management of our newsroom, which I had previously made clear to her, both face-to-face and in my annual assessment.”
Here we go again with the management-aspects line. In his address to staffers yesterday, Sulzberger said, “I choose to appoint a new leader for our newsroom because I believe that new leadership will improve some aspects of the management of the newsroom.” So that’s the default explanation, language that the Times is using as a catch-all response to the question: Why?
It’s not good enough, either. Though Abramson by many accounts irritated people and wasn’t always the most cuddly manager, listen to what Sulzberger said yesterday about how the Times performed under her watch:
It is not about the quality of our journalism, which in my mind has never been better.
Jill did an outstanding job in preserving and extending the level of excellence of our news report during her time as executive editor and, before that, as managing editor and Washington bureau chief. She’s an accomplished journalist who contributed mightily to our reputation as the world’s most important news provider.
A chasm hangs between that evaluation of Abramson’s central mission and the treatment accorded to her yesterday — a ruthless and shocking discarding, that is. Though Sulzberger has stated that he won’t go into detail about the specifics of his decision, despite the memo on pay, a good question might be this: How did Abramson’s deficiencies in “some aspects” of newsroom management compromise the news product?
The information that has come out about the NYT upheaval seems like a veneer masking a complicated palace intrigue that Abramson lost.
— John McQuaid (@johnmcquaid) May 15, 2014