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Jill Abramson leaves the New York Times – and the chatter begins

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When Jill Abramson was hired as executive editor of the New York Times in 2011, the first woman in one of the most important, most visible jobs in journalism, it was big news. Now that she has been dismissed as executive editor of the Times and is being replaced by Dean Baquet, the managing editor, it promises to be even bigger news.

The inside workings of the Times have always been a topic of speculation, sometimes more intense than a Page One feature – although usually that was mostly confined to the East Coast media corridor. It was that way when I worked there (and left before Abramson arrived) and played the game of counting the truths and fictions in each exposé. I expect a flood of exhaustive narratives that will contain only bits of “what really happened.”

The news, however, will surely resonate even outside the media world this time because the appointment meant so much to so many women in the industry and because Abramson’s tenure has always been scrutinized.

In a New Yorker blog post, “Why Jill Abramson Was Fired,” Ken Auletta ticked off several reasons. He wrote that Abramson confronted top management when she discovered her pay and benefits as executive editor and managing editor were “considerably less” than that of Bill Keller, the editor she replaced in both jobs. Auletta also listed clashes with chief executive Mark Thompson, disagreements over her plan to hire a deputy managing editor to oversee the Times’ digital side and publisher Arthur Sulzberger’s long-held worries about Abramson’s “sometimes brusque manner.”

Abramson opened up about the often harsh spotlight that followed her in a keynote speech and question-and-answer session at the Journalism and Women Symposium (JAWS) annual gathering in Vermont last October. The Poynter Institute reported on and posted the speech, during which Abramson commented on an April 2013 Politico story that said she was “on the verge of losing the newsroom.”

Abramson noted that the story used “anonymous quotes,” and said of the journalists who came to her aid, “it was thrilling.” She said it was “like a prairie fire among, like, other women journalists who just, like, saw this thing as, like, a shoddy, sexist, you know, ad feminem attack on me.”

“I’m not saying I’m perfect,” she told the women at the JAWS meeting. “I’m not saying I’m not stubborn. The story seemed to revolve around this silly fight that Dean Baquet, the managing editor of the Times, and I had had one day. But, like, who doesn’t occasionally have, you know, spats with coworkers. And, you know, this one blew over in less than a day, as most do, and, you know, it was just kind of a nutty piece.”

Lauren M. Whaley, JAWS president, recalling Abramson’s participation at last year’s JAWS meerting, told She the People on Wednesday: “We were delighted to welcome her to JAWS and I know many members found great inspiration in having her, a woman, at the helm of The New York Times. Her investigative reporting chops and leadership of one of the top news organizations inspired many other women journalists to reach high and achieve their professional ambitions.”

In the shadow of Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” and other articles and commentaries on the challenges of being a female leader, there will be speculation on whether or how much her leaving is tinged with sexism and a different set of expectations.

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In a Monday New York Times column by Margaret Sullivan, the paper’s public editor, extensively quoted from a Women’s Media Center study that noted the gender gap that persists in the byline count and number of opinion writers, for example, at the country’s 10 most widely circulated newspaper, which would include The Times.

Sullivan discussed the report with Janet Elder, a deputy managing editor, then the paper’s second highest-ranking female editor in the newsroom, who noted a positive difference in the paper from 20 years ago. “Women are running things – that’s an accepted part of the culture,” Elder said. “It’s not ‘wow, there’s a woman in the meeting,’ anymore.” Elder said she was aware, however, that a gap exists and “it’s a problem here and it’s an industry-wide problem.”

“Does it really matter who writes the stories, and who makes the decisions about deploying resources and presenting news? Yes, I think it does,” Sullivan wrote. She concluded: “I’m hoping that someday, the idea of discussing ‘where are the women?’ in journalism will seem completely unnecessary. But we’re not there yet.”

In the New York Times story announcing Wednesday’s transition, Abramson was gracious: “I’ve loved my run at The Times,” Abramson said in a quoted statement. “I got to work with the best journalists in the world doing so much stand-up journalism.”

Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the Times’ publisher and chairman of the New York Times Co., reportedly cited issues with management in the newsroom in announcing Abramson’s departure to a stunned staff. He also her dismissal “was not about the quality of our journalism, which in my mind has never been better.” According to the story, the Times won eight Pulitzer Prizes under Abramson’s tenure as executive editor.

In announcing her replacement, Sulzberger said: “There is no journalist in our newsroom or elsewhere better qualified to take on the responsibilities of executive editor at this time than Dean Baquet. He is an exceptional reporter and editor with impeccable news judgment who enjoys the confidence and support of his colleagues around the world and across the organization.”

“It is an honor to be asked to lead the only newsroom in the country that is actually better than it was a generation ago,” Baquet said, “one that approaches the world with wonder and ambition every day.” Baquet, a Pulitzer Prize-winner and former editor of the Los Angeles Times, is another pioneer, the paper’s first African American executive editor.

Expect some comment about that, too.

It is, after all, the New York Times.

Mary C. Curtis is an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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