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Ousting Jill Abramson

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In light of the fact that the New York Times fired its first female executive editor on Wednesday, I was reminded of what happened at Time magazine in late December of last year.

I read this article in the NYT at the end of last year: “Time Inc. Is Preparing to Head Out on It’s Own.” Flanked by a nice photo of Mr. Joseph A. Ripp—the new boss at Time magazine—it’s ostensibly a piece about the US’s largest magazine publisher breaking off from its parent company, Time Warner.

That’s if you just read the headline, or simply skim over it. If you scrap the headline and actually digest the article, the story is about Wall Street swallowing up the newsroom of one of the country’s oldest and most well-respected journalistic institutions and forcing its first female executive editor to resign.

Time Inc. has…shown signs of instability. It has churned through three chief executives in the last three years, and lost a star editor, its former editor in chief Martha Nelson.

To combat these negative forces, Time Inc. will abandon the traditional separation between its newsroom and business sides, a move that has caused angst among its journalists. Now, the newsroom staffs at Time Inc.’s magazines will report to the business executives. Such a structure, once verboten at journalistic institutions, is seen as necessary to create revenue opportunities and stem the tide of declining subscription and advertising sales.

This bit is up-front, but the article’s author is guilty of one egregious subterfuge. She makes the controversy seem peripheral when, in fact, it is central. The truth is, Time Inc. didn’t give the newsroom over to it’s business side because of “negative forces” like Nelson’s resignation. We find out later in the very same article that Time Inc.’s “star editor” quit because of the takeover:

Among those who expressed concern was Ms. Nelson, the recently departed editor in chief. Before Mr. Ripp came aboard…the magazines’ editors all reported to Ms. Nelson, who was seen as a staunch defender of newsroom autonomy.

Late last summer, Mr. Ripp invited Ms. Nelson to Nantucket to discuss his plans, according to several current and former Time Inc. executives. Troubled by the idea of reporting to the business side, she resigned.

Given this bit of info—that a “star editor” and a “defender of newsroom autonomy” quit her post when businessman Mr. Ripp threatened to take over—I’d say the NYT article is more than misleading. It’s a falsification. It puts events in the wrong order and gets the cause and effect wrong.

Perhaps the article would have made more sense if the NYT had already reported that Nelson resigned. But this article titled “Time Inc. Is Preparing to Head Out on It’s Own” is the report about Nelson getting pushed out of her newsroom by the magazine’s financial side.

The stakes aren’t low. Journalism is under attack from the corporate sector on all fronts and a coup at such a large magazine strikes me as a front page story. But the problem is, how do you talk critically about the corporatization of media from within a corporatized media?

The New York Times, like Time Inc., is a big business with similar anxiety about women set on defending journalism from private interests, an anxiety that surfaced this week. On Wednesday, just over four months after Nelson’s resignation at Time, the NYT announced the ouster of their own first female editor, Jill Abramson.  A New Yorkerpiece gives an explanation for why the paper’s publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., forced her to quit:

Sulzberger’s frustration with Abramson was growing. She had already clashed with the company’s C.E.O., Mark Thompson, over native advertising and the perceived intrusion of the business side into the newsroom.

Officially, the reason was her “management style.” But since when was a gruff editor seen as a threat to the paper? Since that editor was a woman. A woman who didn’t want Wall Street to determine the content of the news.

Amien Essif can be reached through his blog The Gazine.

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