The clash of liberal pieties over the firing of New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson is wonderfully amusing. Feminists complain that her treatment is typical of the mistreatment women face in high-level management jobs, while others cheer the fact that her replacement, Dean Baquet, is the paper’s first black executive editor. There is some dispute over the question of Ms. Abramson’s compensation relative to her male predecessor, and about whether she was penalized for her management style, described as “condescending” by one critic, in a way that a male editor would not have been.
A few thoughts: The first is that I would not be at all surprised if Ms. Abramson’s compensation were less than she expected compared to what her predecessors had earned. Though my own experience as a newspaper editor has been considerably less rarefied than hers, I do recall that some years ago I was offered a job as editor of a daily newspaper at a salary that was less than half of what a previous, long-serving editor had earned. Declining margins have put a great deal of pressure on executive compensation at media companies. The phenomenon no doubt is more extreme outside the lofty heights of the New York Times, but the dynamic probably is the same throughout the industry. I suspect that if I were to return to an editor’s position comparable to any I have held in the past, I would be paid less not only in real terms but in absolute terms than I was. The numbers are just sort of ugly.
The mascot-type thinking at work in the Times story — Ms. Abramson is not an editor but a female editor, Mr. Baquet is not an editor but a black editor — is distasteful, but typical of the way the business operates. Newspapers are managed by a collection of overly emotional people from the newsroom, business-school types who neither know nor care how newspapers actually work, and a fair number of gentlemen who inherited the business from their fathers. Mr. Baquet is a highly regarded reporter, and a winner of the Pulitzer prize for investigative work, but he also served as the editor of the Los Angeles Times, which seems to me as much a disqualification as a qualification for advancement, given that he failed to stop that scandalously incompetent newspaper’s descent from mediocrity. Los Angeles is a fascinating city, but its newspaper reads like it belongs to a town of 100,000. (It does have lovely typography, though.) But to anybody who has followed his career, his ascent seems almost preordained. In either case, I wish him the best of luck.
We conservatives like to beat up on the New York Times, and it gives us many, many reasons to do so, not least its sanctimony, which is on unfortunate display during this episode. But cities and countries need newspapers, and we criticize the Times as much for what it fails to do as for the offenses it gives. I only wish that the paper were as excited about its intellectual standards as it is about the genital configuration of its editor.