In Depth

Two women editors ousted: badasses or just doing their job?

Did the editors of the New York Times and Le Monde face harsher criticism because they were female?

New York Times

TWO of the world's most powerful newspaper women – the editors of the New York Times and Le Monde - have been kicked out of their jobs on the very same day. Anybody who thought the days of gender inequality in the media were over needs to think again.

At least part of the reason for both women's departure appears to be that in trying to turn two great newspapers around to meet the challenges of the digital era, they came up against male-dominated staff who didn't like their style and pushed them out.

Jill Abramson's departure from the New York Times was the most dramatic: her name disappeared off the venerable paper's 'masthead' – the list of senior staff printed on the editorial page – within minutes of yesterday's announcement from publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jnr that she was going.

Several theories have been put forward to explain Abramson's sudden demise. 

Did she have a run-in with Mark Thompson, the former BBC director-general who is now chief executive of the New York Times? According to gossip, he accords the editor less respect than he might in his rampant desire to drive the paper forward into the internet age. He presumably didn't endear himself to Abramson when he was quoted recently saying he had what it took to do "any job" at the newspaper: “I could be editor of the New York Times,” he allegedly said.

Then there's the revelation that Abramson recently tried to hire Janine Gibson, editor-in-chief of Guardian US, as a joint managing editor alongside the incumbent, Dean Baquet, with whom relations were already difficult. Gibson told The Guardian: “The New York Times talked to me about the role of joint managing editor, but I said no.”

And then there's the money issue. Ken Auletta of the New Yorker claims Abramson had complained about being underpaid because of her gender. 

“Abramson discovered that her pay and her pension benefits as both executive editor and, before that, as managing editor were considerably less than the pay and pension benefits of Bill Keller, the male editor whom she replaced in both jobs,” Auletta wrote. 

But the Times has refuted this. A spokeswoman told Politico: "Jill's total compensation as executive editor was not less than Bill Keller's, so that is just incorrect… The reason for the departure was as we said earlier: Arthur [Sulzberger]'s concern over certain aspects of newsroom management."

And here we get to the nub of it: did Abramson make too many enemies because she was "pushy"… "abrasive"… "brusque"… "assertive"… "a badass" (choose your description from countless overnight reports in the US media) and, if that is the case, would a man – especially one leading a large team at a time of great change – ever lose his job for being too "assertive"?

The "pushy" label had stuck to Abramson ever since Newsweek published a profile of her last July which commented on her "high-handed, impatient" and "obstinate" nature and quoted Sulzberger himself calling her "brusque".

Yet Abramson had been given a hell of a task – to make the New York Times, doyenne of the print era, a success in the fast-moving digital news world - and was apparently making a fist of it. 

As Mark Thompson himself boasted when presenting the paper's first quarter figures just three weeks ago: "2014 is off to a good start". Advertising revenue was 3.4 per cent up on the same quarter in 2013, and circulation revenues were up 2.12 per cent. More digital-only subscribers – essential to the paper's future - were added during this quarter than in any quarter in 2013.

But there's no doubt she made enemies, not least of Baquet, who was yesterday confirmed as Abramson's replacement (and who, incidentally, becomes the first African-American to edit the New York Times).

So, what about Le Monde's Natalie Nougayrede, who at 56 is four years younger than Abramson, but is an equally respected journalist ? Was she too "pushy" too?

Well, yes, though pushy wasn't the adjective chosen. Instead, she's been called "authoritarian" and "Putin-like". Like Abramson, she was under pressure to take a well respected paper - think The Guardian, but duller - into the digital age. 

She faced a revolt when she tried to combine the staff of Le Monde's print and online editions, as a result of which seven senior journalists resigned last week, complaining that "a lack of confidence in, and communication with, editorial management prevents us from fulfilling our roles".

In a brief statement, reported by her rivals at Le Figaro, Nougayrede said she was leaving the paper because "I no longer have the means to run it with all the necessary peace and serenity that is required". She puts the blame on those who wished to "reduce drastically the prerogatives of the head of the paper".

Putting aside the notion that any newspaper office in the world might provide an atmosphere of "peace and serenity" - try explaining that to a Daily Mail reporter – it appears, in short, that Nougayrede came up against the same problems as Abramson: a male-dominated staff who didn't like her way of doing things.

Abramson and Nougayrede are not the first women editors to come a cropper: nor are they the first to be criticised for being, shall we say, over assertive. One female tabloid editor in London, no longer in position, routinely addressed male staff in her bad books as "You c***". Given how upsetting a woman might find this remark, it is no surprise that the victims longed for her departure. 

But the world of British tabloids, more entertainment than serious journalism these days, is far removed from the higher ground occupied by the New York Times and Le Monde.

Abramson and Nougayrede were serious players - the former a one-time Wall Street Journal reporter, the latter a Moscow bureau chief for Le Monde. Both have pursued investigative journalism as editors, in particular with their coverage based on Edward Snowden's NSA leaks. In Syria, Le Monde reporters collected samples to prove that President Assad had deployed chemical weapons. 

The New York Times concluded its report of Nougayrede's departure like this: "Defenders of Ms Nougayrede said they believed that as a woman she was subjected to far more harsh criticism than a man would have been for demanding changes at the paper."

Is that what also drove Abramson from the editor's chair in New York? As Ezra Klein, the editor-in-chief of Vox (the website that labelled her "a badass") tweeted earlier: "Can you imagine an editor of the New York Times not being pushy? Why on earth would you want that?"


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