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Why Was The New York Times' Jill Abramson Fired?

Abramson, the Times' first female executive editor, was abruptly let go Wednesday to the surprise of the Times staff.
Posted at 9:30 PM, May 14, 2014

A big shakeup at the newspaper known as The Gray Lady Wednesday as Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., the publisher and chairman at The New York Times, announced the sudden departure of the paper's executive editor Jill Abramson.

Abramson was the Times' first woman executive editor. She took over the job in 2011. (Via Flickr / U.S. Department of Labor, Joe Shlabotnik)

The announcement didn't come with much of an explanation. The Times' story on the switch says, "Citing newsroom management, [Sulzberger] said it was not about the journalism, the direction of the newsroom or the relationship between the newsroom and business sides of the paper."

Times employees' Twitter feeds showed a mix of reactions: several took photos of the stunned newsroom at the moment of the announcement, and one said everyone was gob-smacked. Others took the opportunity to welcome Dean Baquet, who will replace Abramson as executive editor, becoming the first African American to fill the role. (Twitter / @dgelles, @shanrob23, @PatcohenNYT, @chodger, @jennydeluxe)

It's not surprising that with a change this sudden and an explanation this vague, many other news outlets tried to figure out what happened.

Forbes and Vox both point out the paper performed well financially under her tenure, so it's unlikely the decision was business related.

Then there was the editorial direction the newsroom was taking. A New York Magazine story from last summer reported on tension between Abramson and Times CEO Mark Thompsom. The article said, "Abramson has chafed at some of Thompson’s moves as he redirects company resources to projects of ambiguous design, including an aggressive video unit." Though a CNBC contributor points out: 

"The fact of some dispute about exactly what the digital future holds wouldn't seem to precipitate such an abrupt departure. She wasn't even allowed to address staff as the announcement of her departure was made."

But the most popular theory was that it came down to Abramson's brusque leadership style. Stories about disagreements with employees and higher-ups emerged, and a story from Politico last year reported a dramatic argument between Abramson and Baquet that ended when "Baquet burst out of Abramson’s office, slammed his hand against a wall and stormed out of the newsroom."

That speculation might have been close to the truth. Soon after the firing was announced, media critic Ken Auletta wrote in The New Yorker that a fresh round of clashes between Abramson and other Times' leadership had happened in recent weeks. Abramson reportedly challenged Sulzberger when she learned she was getting less pay and fewer benefits than her predecessor, Bill Keller.

In any case, it's hard to doubt Abramson's commitment to the paper. She revealed to Out magazine just last month that she has a tattoo of a Times-style letter "T" on her back. We're guessing it looks like that one. 

After Wednesday's announcement, she said in a statement, "I've loved my run at The Times. I got to work with the best journalists in the world doing so much stand-up journalism."

Baquet, who was the paper's managing editor, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and former editor of the Los Angeles Times.