By George Sylvie, University of Texas

More than a month has passed since Jill Abramson lost her job as executive editor of The New York Times in a move Publisher Arthur Sulzberger says he made to improve the newsroom’s management.

Since then, other motives have been suggested, including Abramson’s reported lack of presence and disengagement during Hurricane Sandy, her supposed lack of communication with Managing Editor Dean Baquet regarding an attempt to hire a co-managing editor for digital news, and a management style that some felt made her seem brusque, inaccessible, and aloof at times. Additional tea-leaf readers have offered more salacious rationales: a row over compensation (did her successor get paid more?), The Times’ inability to de-emphasize print and fully join the digital-first movement (damn that print attitude), the traditional (to journalism, anyway) inability to learn on the job quickly enough to please the boss, and, of course, the boss himself.

More recently, Columbia Business School professor Daniel Ames makes the particularly intriguing observation that many of us simply have no clue as to how we come across on the job. His soon-to-be-published study with colleague Frank Flynn shows that not only do those seen as appropriately assertive often believe they overdo it, the converse also occurs: A majority of study participants seen by their peers as over-assertive actually felt they came across well or somewhat under-assertive. Such “line-crossing illusion” suggests that we’ll probably hear a rebuttal from Abramson relatively soon; probably a book, no doubt.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, when media management research was in its infancy, we were told that although the business still promoted non-managers into management positions, the days of the crabby, authoritarian and overbearing supervising newsroom manager were over. Seems as if the more things change, the more they remain the same, however.

A Times editor has been forced to turn over the reins to someone “getting the newsroom fully focused on its work and returning a lot of authority to editors on the front lines,” only this time it’s Baquet who’s getting the reins (instead of Abramson predecessor Bill Keller). And Abramson “was unable or unwilling to become a ‘hybrid’ manager who could maintain key old assumptions with relevant new ones.” Abramson is, in effect, the new Howell Raines, and the quotes are from “A Lesson From The New York Times: Timing and the Management of Cultural Change,” an article I researched for The International Journal of Media Management (v. 5 No. 4) some 11 years ago circa the Jayson Blair scandal.

So are editors (and, in this case, publishers) doomed to make the same dumb mistakes over and over? As Newsroom Decision-Making: Under New Management (Media XXI, 2012) points out, decision-making is the expression or the extension of how a news manager interprets the gap between how audiences value the product and what effort the news organization puts into the product (pp. 263-264). Put another way, decision-making is a means toward achieving value capture and, if done profitably, will include a large dose of audience value. In essence, then, Sulzberger is doing nothing more than making sure the newsroom goes where it needs to go – interpret “where” however you want to interpret it.

That doesn’t mean he’s good at it. But the fact that we (as part of the journalism community) get caught up the personnel changes at the world’s most prominent newspaper simply belies our human tendencies to become attracted to personalities and issues. It makes life interesting. It gets journalists talking, tongues wagging. Still, it doesn’t mean managers shouldn’t take newsroom values into consideration.

While Abramson was attempting to create an organizational form and approach that alleviated what she saw as dissent between the print and digital products, she ignored conflicts between subordinates’ organizational and professional commitments to such things as open communication and participative management. If anything about the Blair scandal became clear, it was that The Times’ newsroom would not be ignored and that timing is everything. But again, as studies in Newsroom Decision-Making show, “newsroom managers have a mental disconnect when it comes to the values of their subordinates” (p. 269).

Newsroom decision-making as evidenced by Abramson’s and Sulzberger’s actions shows that who makes the decision isn’t as important as who the decision-maker consults or considers. Such “systemic selection,” then, seeks not to abolish journalistic autonomy; instead, it represents a reframing of newsroom behavior into a process-oriented, entrepreneurial, creative, and value-dominant lens. Baquet, too, may find that the sword he brandishes in replacing Abramson could also be his undoing if he takes on the mantle of change-agent over that of “hybrid.”

Just ask Abramson and Raines.

Editing – and thus leading a newsroom – has ceased to simply be the removal of words, the verification of facts, the coaching of reporters, the controlling of content, or the management of a budget. It has become peer- and audience-based, and timing-sensitive. Adapt and you succeed. Fail and you are silenced.

 

George Sylvie is an Associate Professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas. Sylvie studies technology, change, innovation, and decision-making in the newspaper industry. His work, presented at various international conferences, has focused on newspaper editors’ decision-making styles in the United States and Scandinavia. Sylvie has co-authored a leading media management textbook, Media Management: A Casebook Approach, in its fourth edition in publication by Taylor & Francis, and he sits on the editorial boards of Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, The Journal of Media Economics, The International Journal on Media Management, and The Journal of Media Business Studies.

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