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A New York Times Whodunit

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Among senior executives at the Times, it was understood that any decision had to be discussed with Robinson before it was telegraphed to Golden. “Whatever conversation you had with Michael, you had to have with her first,” says a former colleague who worked with both people.

But last fall, as he was helping finalize the sale of the regional media group, Golden found himself without a property to run at the paper. In the past, when he was temporarily without a job at the company, Golden let people know he was restless and unhappy. “He was ­frustrated and wanted to do a lot more,” recounts a person to whom Golden once confided.

Since Sulzberger ran the flagship Times, that pretty much left the Boston Globe. In Golden’s estimation, Robinson had not pushed hard enough to sell the paper, and he wanted to see it sold sooner rather than later. Since the economy had collapsed in 2008, Golden and others had begun to wonder if Robinson had missed a window to sell when the Globe and About.com were worth a combined estimated $1 billion. And there was another possibility: Once those properties were finally gone, Golden could make a play for CEO himself, pushing Robinson aside. In addition to giving Golden the power he felt was his due, eliminating Robinson would also cut $6.8 million in salary from the company’s balance sheet. And if the Globe was sold, perhaps the Times could raise enough cash to pay down its debts and afford a $25 million annual dividend again, assuaging the family’s financial anxieties.

Last fall, Golden wanted to take a closer look at the incoming numbers on the Globe’s pay wall, which launched on ­September 12, 2011, to see what progress it was making. But Robinson, according to people familiar with the matter, had ­instructed the Globe’s publisher, Chris Mayer, to direct any information about bostonglobe.com to her and not to Golden. As one Times executive told me, it looked like Robinson was “making a move against Michael.

“Once the situation involved a family member,” this person told me, “it became a true liability.”

That put Sulzberger in a difficult position. By crossing a sacred family line, Robinson gave Golden the opening he needed to assert himself. Golden, an agent of his family’s unhappiness, and a man looking for a larger role, became directly involved in Robinson’s exit. In the past, Sulzberger had the authority to keep Golden and the rest of his family at arm’s length. Now, with the business struggling and his absences very much a matter of internal discussion, he was no longer in a position to protect Robinson—and, maybe just as important, he had lost the will to do so. His girlfriend didn’t like her. He had lost his digital guru because of her. And now his cousin wanted her gone, too. Sulzberger was up against the wall.

In early November, Golden and Sulzberger made the decision together to fire Robinson. Sulzberger retained Richard Edelman, a PR man he had used for crisis-management jobs in the past, in particular the Judith Miller ­contempt-of-court situation in 2005. Edelman’s team decided Robinson should be ushered out immediately, before a new leader was in place, and surmised that the impact of the news would be muted by the sale of the Times’ regional media group, which was just then being finalized.

And so it was on the morning of December 9, before 7 a.m., when the offices were virtually empty, Sulzberger called Robinson in and told her she was dismissed. She left the paper’s head­quarters and never returned.

To this day, Robinson tells colleagues she doesn’t understand why she was fired. The Times’ own story of her exit called it a retirement. If Robinson’s ouster came as a shock to her, it was even more shocking for the employees of the Times when they found out six days later. The news led to a wave of anxiety and antagonism at the paper, especially after it was revealed that her exit package amounted to almost $24 million, nearly half the company’s profits in 2011.

When Sulzberger informed the board of directors of his plans, there was strong dissent from at least two members who didn’t agree with Robinson’s firing. Sulz­berger, with Golden and the two other family members on the board, didn’t have to listen because together they controlled the board through their special class-B stock shares. The board’s compensation committee, led by David Liddle, a Silicon Valley executive known to support Robinson, sought guidance from an outside law firm on Robinson’s exit package. Motivated by what amounted to guilt over Robinson’s firing by the Ochs-Sulzberger family after 28 years at the company, the committee agreed to give her the maximum amount recommended by the outside firm. In essence, the payout was a protest that expressed the daylight between the powerless independent board and the family members who forced Robinson out.


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