Abramson has told a friend outside the paper that she feels isolated and without allies. When I called Abramson to ask for an interview, she laughed and replied, “Do you want to cause me to kill myself?”
Given the obvious tension with Baquet, Abramson has lacked an ally who can act as a partner as she tangos with Thompson. Last spring, she began a round of discussions with James Bennet, the editor-in-chief of The Atlantic. She floated the idea of a masthead position at the paper with a focus on the web, but Bennet turned it down.
Abramson recently appointed Sulzberger’s son, Arthur Gregg Sulzberger, formerly a reporter in Kansas City and then “Metro” desk editor, to a special position overseeing “a new ideas task force … that will think up and propose new ways to expand our news offerings digitally.” (Around the same time, another Sulzberger relative, David Perpich, was given a similar role on the business side; between Perpich and Arthur Gregg, the moves set up a line of succession for the next generation after Sulzberger, who will be 62 in September, and Michael Golden, age 64, decide to retire.)
Perhaps nothing has highlighted the shifting fault line between Abramson and Thompson more than the loss of Nate Silver, the data cruncher and presidential-campaign prognosticator, to ESPN and ABC News last month. During the election last year, Abramson made clear how much she valued the attention Silver brought to the Times’ political coverage. Of the Silver-inspired surge in Times online readership, she said: “They weren’t coming for the rest of the Times; they came for him.” So as Silver’s three-year contract neared its end this August, the Times began a series of discussions to keep him. In his first contract with the Times, Silver had turned down more money elsewhere in order to stay. This time, Silver wanted an enlarged role at the paper, including a bigger staff and a wider editorial scope beyond politics. He expected his employer to develop his trademarked FiveThirtyEight website and brand on other platforms, like TV, and in other news sections, like sports. Abramson put on a full-court press, and for a while she believed he might stay, telling Silver the Times was the “prettiest girl at the dance.”
So when Silver announced he was leaving, Abramson was angry. Some of her staff blamed her for the loss. “If Jill had been more aggressive early in the year, it never would have come to this,” says a reporter.
But the major reason Silver left was because he felt it was Thompson who had not committed to building his franchise. The mixed signals from Thompson and Abramson—his lack of enthusiasm for committing resources to Silver, her desire to keep a major star—frustrated Silver and his lawyer. The two Times executives did not appear to them to be on the same page: During one meeting, Silver and his lawyer saw Abramson roll her eyes at the Times CEO.
For Abramson, Silver was a tentpole attraction for her favorite subject, national politics, and brought the kind of buzz she thought valuable. In an interview, Thompson confirmed that keeping Silver was not at the top of his agenda: “I would not say it was an overwhelming priority,” he says. “During the election period, he was obviously a very significant figure. Off-season, it’s a slightly different story.”
Thompson says his strategy “does not depend on keeping any one journalist or any one business leader or anybody.” But, then, who does it depend on? The business of the Times is now being run by three executive managers, Sulzberger, Golden, and Thompson, who between them soak up almost $13 million in compensation. In a meeting this year, Golden told colleagues he liked Thompson because Thompson listened to what he had to say—a crystal-clear dig at former CEO Janet Robinson.
Asked if that kind of top-heavy management is necessary to run a newspaper, Thompson replies that the changes he is bringing to bear are “colossal”; therefore, “I think the idea of having a large and strong management team makes sense.”
Meanwhile, Thompson continues under the glare of an ongoing investigation. In September, he will reportedly testify about what he knew of excessive severance compensation paid to some top executives under his leadership. The Times’ coverage of these matters has been minimal.
Thompson says he’s not distracted by the drip feed of bad news about his role at the BBC. “No, I’m completely engaged,” he says. “I mean, I’m fully engaged in the job I’ve been asked to do here, and I’m really enjoying it.”
But he also confesses that his plans—the answer to that question posed last December in San Francisco about the future of the paper—have barely gotten under way. “It’s far too early to reach any conclusions, good or bad, as to how that’s going,” he says, adding, “You should ask others.”
Thompson says his presence will just take some getting used to. “Is the New York Times getting to know me? And am I, compared to the past, more visible than past CEOs? Yes. Whether that leads to success, we’ll see.”
*This article has been corrected to show that in his new role as assistant managing editor for new initiatives, Larry Ingrassia, formerly of the business page, reports to Jill Abramson.