Photo Courtesy of USC Annenberg
Former editor, The Des Moines Register
There’s a welcome, thought-provoking look at the paucity of women in leadership in media in the new Nieman Reports, Why so few women in media leadership? The American Society of News Editors and Associated Press Managing Editors will be mulling the same question next week at a panel I’ll moderate at their joint convention in Chicago.
I’ve long felt that one change, among many, that newsrooms will have to make is to reframe their pinched notion of “diversity.” Here are my thoughts from the Nieman article:
I loved doing this interview with the wicked-smart and delightful Ruben Sanchez, just out in Skyword.com’s Innovator Series. Reading it over, I realized that one of the ideas I mentioned to Ruben is something I wanted to develop a bit, so here goes:
In all immodesty, the cool, bristling-with-ideas folks planning startups are overlooking an opportunity: They should be putting old journalists (yes, like me) on their boards. Google “why startups fail,” (see here, here and here for just the first three examples I saw) and you’ll get my point. Veteran journalists have skills that counter common startup plagues.
Take the single-minded commitment of one leader: It may be a criticall thing for a startup, as far as it goes. But listening mostly to yourself is a problem. Run your thoughts past folks who have served the public interests in many different ways over a long period of time, and everyone is likely to learn something. Same with one very narrow idea — enrich it by regularly subjecting it to discussions with those who have long experience with life, and enhance its staying power.
Management weaknesses are another challenge. Anyone new to this arena could benefit from the counsel of those who have found solutions over years of management challenges.
Veteran journalists know how to picture the people they are trying to reach. They know how communities function and what strengthens or weakens democracy. They know how to write, edit, verify, curate. And, stubborn and passionate as we are, old journalists can help by bolstering your tenacity and passion when those are flagging.
Silicon Valley is famous for its lack of gender and ethnic diversity. Both of these lamentable facts decrease startups’ chances of success in our ever more diverse society. Here’s another lack that weakens them. Journalism has made plenty of mistakes over the past few years. Why not benefit from what we’ve learned from them?
The wonderful Mario Garcia graciously included me today in his list of good editors he has known. When he asked me for my own thinking about what drove me as an editor, I said what I’ve always felt: That your main job is to make everyone else’s job go better. Another ingredient occurred to me yesterday, when I had lunch with a friend who told me that someone had once called her “the toughest nice person” he knew. Definitely another good qualification.
In the swirl of the Jill Abramson firing, a couple of things being said about the new executive editor, Dean Baquet, didn’t sync with my impression of him. I looked back at this video of a forum I hosted at USC Annenberg with Baquet when he had just become managing editor of The New York Times, and saw why
What I had found most worrisome was Glenn Greenwald’s charge that Baquet has “a really disturbing history of practicing this form of journalism that is incredibly subservient to the American national security state.” When I looked back at the video of Baquet at the USC Director’s Forum on Oct. 27, 2011, I was struck by the fact that he had opened the session with an impassioned call for national-security reporting.
He talked about a call he got, when he was executive editor of the Los Angeles Times, from George Tenet, then director of the CIA. Tenet asked him to hold a story about the CIA, which was spying on the Iranian community in the U.S. Baquet told us that he held the story for a day so as to be able to review it, then called Tenet back and said he’d be running it.
Baquet talked to the gathering of students and faculty about other such stories, as well, including the New York Times reporting on National Security Agency surveillance. He noted that he had had conversations with folks in both the Obama and the Bush administrations on national-security issues, “and the argument is always the same.”
“But so far, not a single bit of evidence — even in the case of Wikileaks, which I edited – has emerged to prove that any of these stories has threatened national security. I’d argue that, in each case, it’s the newspaper that’s being the patriot.” Read more ›
Like most editors I know, Baquet has indeed presided over decisions not to print. But his remarks at the forum speak to a strength of conviction that I found reassuring. (More reassuring than Baquet’s retort to Richard Prince, calling Greenwald “idiotic” for making the charge.)
The second striking thing in the video was what Baquet had to say about Jill Abramson’s hiring as editor.
A piece about Abramson by Ken Auletta had just run in the New Yorker when the USC forum occurred. I asked Baquet about the notion in that story that, in the end, Arthur Sulzberger’s choice had come down to Jill or Dean, and if the publisher had chosen Dean, he would have lost Jill. In picking Jill, he got both of them. Baquet nodded, adding: “I actually think…Arthur made the right decision. “
“I think that Jill had a lot going for her. She had worked in that newsroom.” (Baquet had been running the New York Times Washington bureau). “She’s a terrific editor.” The Auletta piece “didn’t capture some of the things she had done,” he added, saying it should have been “more about the journalism.”
Baquet continued: “When Arthur called me, I thought, ‘terrific!’ “ (He also noted that he’d been a managing editor twice, and executive editor once. “Being managing editor is about a billion times more fun. Like being coach versus being general manager: You get to hang out with the players.”
As for some of the things Auletta reported about Jill’s leadership style, “I do think that when women in leadership – the tradition of this sort of a cantankerous editor is a much more acceptable tradition for male editors than it is for women who become editor.”
Referring to the infamously difficult Times editor Abe Rosenthal, Baquet said: “In her defense…Abe is portrayed by history as a tyrant. I don’t think that’s Jill. That’s not Jill at all.”
One other thing worth noting about the forum is that Baquet speaks at length about his great enthusiasm for journalism’s new tools. Given that his supposed relative lack of passion — and relative inexperience – on the digital side of things was another concern voiced in the wake of Abramson’s firing, the eagerness with which he talked to students on this topic is noteworthy.
(This is a slightly edited version of the address I had the honor of delivering at North Carolina’s St. Andrews University.)
I want to thank President Baldasare for having me here today.
I want to add my thanks, too, to the faculty and administration of this wonderful university, who have made the fine education that we celebrate today possible. I want to salute the parents and grandparents, the brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles and cousins and dear friends who are here to witness this momentous occasion. And, finally, the most important thing I have to say:
CONGRATULATIONS to all you freshly minted graduates of St. Andrews University! Hooray!!! Job well done! You’ve done so much hard work to get to the place where you sit today.
This is a very moving moment for me. I find myself these days in the midst of milestones: our younger daughter got married two weeks ago today. We will be celebrating my mother-in-law’s 90th birthday next month, in Charlotte. And our older daughter is due to deliver our first grandchild in July.
Equally moving to me is this: I am here, on this beautiful campus, where both of my parents taught. I got to party last night with friends I first made half a
century ago, friends with whom I graduated from Laurinburg High School. On this campus, my brother taught me to drive a stick shift, bucking around the parking lot that was then behind the Vardell Building. And it was in that building, by the way, that I took piano lessons. (I became a pretty good driver, but not much of a pianist.)
So, this is a very powerful place for me. And today is a very powerful moment. I was deeply honored to be invited to give your commencement address, and I wanted very much to find something real and meaningful to say to you. So, amidst all these milestones, I’ve been thinking a lot about life, and how it is shaped, and what shapes it. And that’s what I want to talk to you about: The role you play in shaping your life.
In other words, I want to talk to you about LEADING your life. You know, much of the time, life leads YOU. And this is truer now than ever. My field, journalism, has surely shown me that. The constant wealth of information available, whenever and wherever you are, is an addictive distraction. Virtually every field is like journalism, in that change is coming unbelievably quickly – technological change, social change. All our lives, now, are affected by fast-paced change, happening constantly all around us.
It’s easy to get carried along in the rapids.
Now, please don’t mistake me. I am not griping about change, and I don’t fear it. I think this is, for the most part, an enormously promising and hopeful period. This moment, when you are coming of age and launching into adulthood, is a wonderfully interesting one. Along with unsettlement, it offers boundless promise for a better, more just, more richly connected, world.
So when I say I want you to LEAD your life, rather than have it lead you, I don’t for a moment mean that you shouldn’t expect change, or embrace the unknown, that you shouldn’t be open to serendipity, or be light on your feet. The connections that social media allow us are so rich. Today’s entertainment menu is so remarkably fresh and diverse. Sure, we all need to be smart about the choices we make. But WHAT a wondrous world this is, one that we should embrace with gusto.
Still, amidst all this stimulation, amidst all of these ways that life is leading US, what I want you to think about – no, what I want you to commit to here today — is this: To establish some goals, to set some parameters, for how you want to lead your life. When YOU look back in fifty years, what do you want to see? When you reach my ripe age, what is it that you hope gives you reason to say: “I did that well.”
Certain things in life need attending to. This requires conscious decisions. This demands stepping occasionally out of the maelstrom to be MINDFUL about how you are spending your time. It is having goals in mind that keeps your life pointed in the direction you want it to go. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” I think he put it this way – talking specifically about the long arc – in order to acknowledge the many, many injustices along the way, while stressing that what matters is what happens over the broad sweep of time. That is how life works: It is the arc, over the long term, that determines the shape of your life, more even than the dramatic twists and turns that life takes along the way.
Every life has its ups and downs, its tragedies and joys, its obstacles and serendipities. My message is surely not that you can CONTROL your life. But you can shape it. And in order to shape it, (in order to LEAD it), you have to DECIDE where you want it to go. And to keep it headed there, you have to check in with yourself, now and then, to see if you’re living up to your commitment to yourself.
So, let me ask you graduates two things. Can you identify your priorities? And, if so, are you are in fact investing your time, your energy and your emotions IN those priorities?
Most of us would say that love is a priority. Is it for you? Are you paying attention to those you love? Are you thinking about what your family members need — or simply would dearly love to have – from you? What your friends are hoping for? Are you making powerful commitments to those whom you love most? Loving people well takes time, and energy and thought.
Or, how about your goals as a citizen, a member of society? Do you, for example, hope to make community a central commitment? Are you aiming to do what you can to make this nation more just? To make your local schools better? To make the streets safer?
Or maybe it’s environmental concerns that drive you. Food safety, or climate change; energy self-sufficiency or water scarcity. Whatever your passion as a citizen of this fast-changing world, note it, and commit to it, and check in regularly to see whether you are following through.
Another commitment to consider is keeping your spirit healthy. Are you being true to your faith, whatever it may be? Are you taking time out to pray, or to meditate, to relish the outdoors, or whatever it is that nourishes YOUR spirit and makes you a kinder, more loving person, one who awakens happiness in others through smiles or small courtesies? Do you take time to laugh, to read a poem, to dance?
And how about your physical well-being? Are you eating right, and feeding your loves ones well? Are you exercising, sleeping, avoiding excesses, caring for yourself?
And then of course there is your work, an essential part of life in so many ways, and hugely time-consuming. How will you determine if what you are doing is right for you? What kind of contribution do you most want to make? Are you doing the best you can at whatever it is that you HAVE to do – because, of course, we don’t always get to choose.
Your touchstones may be different – no they WILL be different — from mine. That’s as it should be. But whatever they are, your last St. Andrews assignment is to think about what’s important to you. Determine the goals that will enable you to LEAD your life. Write them down. Commit them to memory. And then commit to checking in with yourself regularly to see how you’re doing.
Now, I imagine that, to some of you at least, this may seem unnecessarily prescriptive. You don’t HAVE to do it, of course. Your life will unspool without it. You’ll be happy and sad, you’ll fail and succeed. But in the absence of clear goals and a commitment to head toward them, the arc of your life will be directed more and more by happenstance, determined more and more by other people. There will be a widening divergence between where you had hoped to go – if you had thought about it – and where your unexamined actions are taking you.
You’ve got this one lovely chance to do it right. Why not be the leader in your own life?
Of course there’s no test on this last lesson at your beloved alma mater, no exam to determine how well you’ve done it. Life provides the test. And if you are conscious of how you want yours to look, if you are intentional about the direction in which you are moving, if you are mindful about monitoring how it’s going – well, I promise you this: You’ll end up being amazed at how many of your hopes have been realized.
I am grateful, for so many reasons, to be here with you on this memorable day. And prime among those reasons is this: In crafting my message to you, I have reminded myself of what I think is important. Like you, I’m beginning a new stage of life, stepping out on unfamiliar terrain. I’m brand new at not working full-time. Come to think of it: This is the first day of the rest of my life! (a statement required at all commencement ceremonies). So excuse me while I go figure out what my new markers are, and how I’m going to ensure that my commitments to myself come true. So that when I really grow old, I can look back and say: That’s the kind of life I hoped to live.
So, now: Congratulations to you all! And remember: the future IS in your hands!
The reasons for Jill Abramson’s firing as editor of The New York Times are no doubt many and complex. But one thing is clear: the editor-publisher relationship failed, spectacularly.
This classic journalistic partnership, when it works, is like a good marriage. Full of successes and challenges, warmth and tension, it requires constant open communication and full-hearted dedication on the part of both parties. Also loyalty. A good editor ensures that the publisher is never blindsided. A good publisher ensures sufficient editorial independence to do good journalism. And a newsroom relies on believing that the two have confidence in one another. The successful combinations are legendary: Punch and Abe, Katharine and Ben. (I learned how essential this partnership is when I was fortunate enough, as editor of the Des Moines Register, to work with publisher Charlie Edwards.)
What happened in this case, according to the publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., is that his editor, Abramson, had to leave because of her management style. But, really: Editors are famed for being difficult. Every journalist has stories about newsroom leaders throwing fits – or, better, potted plants. Hot tempers, arrogance, polarization: these have practically been job requirements for editors. I’m not saying this is a good thing. I’m saying that it’s striking that we’d become sensitive to the unpleasantness only when a woman makes it to the top.
Actually, though, there IS cause for newsrooms to be even unhappier today than usual. They are being made to change (though not quickly enough), and change is difficult. So, if it has always been true that newsrooms were fertile ground for anyone seeking anonymous gripes, it is even truer now. Indeed, my word to wise publishers would be to be wary today of the universally loved editor. He’s probably not doing what you need him to do.
Of course, the editor does have a managerial responsibility to the publisher: To ensure that the staff is doing good work. In this, Abramson seems to have succeeded. Her “management style” became a firing offense only because the editor-publisher relationship was broken.
Then there are the reports of conflicts over business issues. When Mark Thompson was hired as chief executive in 2012, the already existing challenges of leading journalism through the dangerous shoals of business experimentation grew even more complex. Remember that newspapers are strange enterprises in that they have as a central element a unit whose behavior may, when it is at its best, be inimical to the financial fortunes of the business. Add in the fact that far-reaching innovation is now essential to the very existence of these endangered species. Imagine the tensions that arise naturally, then, if the main business executive and the main editorial executive are both doing their jobs. Only a publisher (and chairman of the board) in open communication with each, confident of both, could make this work.
What’s striking to me in this regard is the story of the effort to hire the Guardian’s Janine Gibson as an additional managing editor. This seems to have caught Managing Editor Dean Baquet by (understandably unpleasant) surprise. But both Thompson and Sulzberger had met with Gibson as well as Abramson, and apparently were involved in the effort to hire her. Had the publisher and editor never discussed how this matter would be presented to the managing editor? This is believable only in the utter absence of communication that a failed relationship implies.
Finally, of course: the gender question. It isn’t news that the newsroom culture is proudly male. Women have long struggled to figure out how to thrive in it. So it’s no wonder that Sulzberger’s vague assertion about management style opened the door to outrage. Imagine Abe Rosenthal hiring a coach to help him with his management style! Imagine if Abramson had been the one to slam her hand against the newsroom wall, as Baquet reportedly did after a disagreement with her (with no apparent dint to his reputation for being unfailingly polite and amiable).
I am happy about one side effect of this sad affair, and that is the outpouring of powerful pieces by women documenting the challenges facing women in journalism – and showing how meaningful it was for women in the Times newsroom to have a woman at the top. See, for example, Amanda Hess, Rebecca Traister, Ann Friedman, Susan Glasser and Rachel Sklar. With any luck, these beautifully crafted and deeply felt pieces will be helpful to the next person who decides to “give a woman a chance.”
It is said that Sulzberger was torn when he named Abramson editor, thinking perhaps he should have picked Baquet instead. Of all the unknowables here, this one rings especially true. It would explain why these two key relationships — publisher-editor, and editor-managing editor – were doomed. In the end, Abramson may have felt very much as if she were standing between two people who just wanted her gone.
(Full disclosure: I know Sulzberger, Abramson and Baquet, and admire them all.)