The New York Times remains a source of political controversy, but its importance to our democracy has never been greater. Information is perhaps democracy’s most valuable currency, and as news institutions have shrunk, morphed into “click bait” shops or disappeared altogether, the Times, with its unmatched reach of foreign and domestic bureaus and coverage, is one of the only great news institutions left. Of course, the Times has faced its own cutbacks and controversy in the newsroom, most recently the firing of Jill Abramson as executive editor.
I have followed the Abramson story with some regret; I have known her and admired her work for many years. It was fascinating to read the Times’ obituary yesterday of one of its previous great editors: Arthur Gelb. Gelb was praised for being “relentless, fidgety and in your face,” and anecdotes of Gelb crushing young reporters under the weight of yet another assignment were mixed with remembrances of a passionate and inspirational editor and mentor. It is also interesting to note that Gelb was an innovator, addressing declining circulation by expanding the Times into new fields and sections, designed to appeal to the cultural sensibilities of its readership’s changing demographics and to be a new repository of advertising. Much of the same can be said of Abramson; she, too, was a demanding boss; anyone who has ever worked in a newsroom knows that great editors are often brutal in their search for the story and caustic in their demand for excellence. Abramson was also working ably to innovate on her generation’s challenge: how to adapt a print property to the digital age.
But however wrong the decision to fire Abramson and however mishandled, the Times will continue to thrive. Its publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., has been underestimated for years but has steered the Times off the wrecking shoals, driven its adaptation to the Web and maintained its excellence. He knows his institution is bigger than him and much more important than any one person who works there, no matter how talented. In a sense, the Times belongs to a nation that has fewer and fewer places it can get information from people who are passionate about the truth.