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.