Dean Baquet And The Inevitable Decline of The New York Times

May 21, 2014

When I was a reporter at The Toronto Star, a once-great newspaper that employed the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Morley Callaghan, it was a family-controlled institution that was staunchly Canadian in its ideals and deeply committed to promoting social justice and individual and civil liberties. The publisher in my day was an incredibly Machiavellian man who took great personal delight in fostering a culture of distrust and insecurity, making The Star one of the most insanely political places I ever worked.  I take great pride in having worked there.

What impressed me about The Star was the incredible loyalty the place engendered. Working at the newspaper required a constant test of your commitment. People who were perceived as rising stars were often unceremoniously demoted simply to keep their egos in check.  Ray Timson, another legendary Star journalist, was promoted and demoted multiple times as managing editor.  I once asked him why he put up with the repeated public humiliation and he replied, “It builds character.” Indeed, the truly talented journalists tended to stick around knowing they eventually could get back into the publisher’s good graces; the temporary indignities were worth it to be writing or editing Canada’s most widely circulated (and highest paying) newspaper. The emotional battle scars were badges of courage.

The New York Times was once very similar in terms of cultivating a deep devotion among its reporters. Becoming a “Timesman” (back then there wasn’t a gender-neutral term) was akin to being a cult member. Regardless of the conditions and treatment endured, working there was seen as a calling rather than a mere job. Abe Rosenthal, a legendary editor who oversaw the newspaper from 1977 to 1988, was notoriously nasty and mean-spirited. To his favor, it was a different era; the term “hostile work environment” had not yet been coined. Journalists in those days generally had thick skins, and didn’t retain lawyers and seek compensation for every real or perceived wrongdoing in the workplace. For great insight into the brutality of the Times culture, read “I Shouldn’t Be Telling You This,” by former Times reporter Mary Breasted or “Bylines,” by former Times reporter Bernard Weinraub. Both reveal life at the paper through thinly veiled fictional storytelling.

The recent media coverage of Jill Abramson’s removal as the Times’ top editor has been heavily influenced by the “scoop” of New Yorker media writer Ken Auletta, suggesting she was terminated after protesting that she was being paid less than her male predecessor and allegedly lawyering up to deal with the matter. Given the Times’ precarious financial situation, I’d expect Abramson to receive a lower compensation, though the newspaper has denied that’s the case. Regardless, Abramson’s leadership abilities were clearly an issue and extensively covered in this Politico article. The more insightful “scoop” on the Abramson firing was actually buried in a New York magazine column on May 14 by Gabriel Sherman.

According to Sherman, Abramson in the spring of 2010 felt slighted at a meeting by Times publisher Arthur Sulzburger Jr. and told then-Times CEO Janet Robinson that she planned to resign. Robinson reportedly “patched things up.” Perhaps I’m romanticizing here, but when Sulzburger’s father ran the place, I’m doubtful any of his editors would have dared to threaten to resign because their feathers were ruffled. If they did, my guess is they would have been shown the door.  And with the advantage of hindsight, so should have been Abramson.

Sherman also reports that Dean Baquet, who has been named to succeed Abramson, let it be known in the newsroom that he wasn’t happy with Abramson’s leadership and was entertaining an offer from Bloomberg to oversee its Washington bureau. Baquet doesn’t have the bona fides of a die-hard Timesman; he left the paper in 2000 to join the Los Angeles Times, but rejoined the newspaper in 2007. And while there’s no question that the LA Times produced some exemplary journalism under Baquet’s watch, it didn’t attract more readers or improve its finances. “It’s not always our job to give readers what they want,” Baquet unabashedly explained to Auletta in a 2005 New Yorker article. As I’ve said before, the Peter Principle has always thrived in mainstream journalism.

Is Baquet really the person who can save the New York Times?  I’d argue that under Abramson’s watch, the Times in some ways was the best newspaper it’s ever been, but that alone didn’t put the newspaper on a more stable financial footing. Abramson’s firing brought to light the sad fact that the Times is no longer led by people who see the institution as being a cause bigger than themselves, but rather self-centered free agents who will jump ship if they don’t get their way. As a leader, you can’t engender loyalty among your people when you so clearly and painfully lack it yourself. It’s little wonder the Times has had to contend with a rash of high profile defections, including Abramson’s predecessor Bill Keller.

And therein is the consequence of laying off the legions of experienced and incredibly loyal journalists as the Times has done in recent years.  The staff cuts may have resulted in some much-needed financial savings, but at the cost of the newspaper’s soul.  The newspaper is no longer staffed by journalists steeped in tradition. Young reporters today view journalism today as a vehicle to create and promote their own personal brands, and there are better outlets to achieve this goal.  For Millennials, the Times is fast becoming the journalism equivalent of your father’s Oldsmobile.  

Of this much I’m certain: The appointments of Abramson and Baquet were truly historic – but over time, it will become clear not for reasons they will want to be remembered for.