Her defenders say she has become more sensitive to the jitters of the newsroom. “Is Jill the best listener?” asks David Carr, the paper’s media critic. “No. I think she heard the criticism coming into her job, though, and has made significant efforts to be open-minded. Maybe she hasn’t listened to everyone, and maybe that’s why she ends up with a piece like [the one in Politico].”
For his part, Thompson says the paper is not so much cutting back as creating a new “skills mix.” “We’ve been going through a process at the New York Times of a change in the talent and skills mix you need in a modern newsroom,” he says. “Many people have gone and many people have arrived, designers and videographers coming in the newsroom. It’s not been a sense of cutting back; it’s changing the mix.
“It’s incredibly important that we get the amount of money we spend on everything right,” he says, “particularly in the newsroom.”
In place of the 30 reporters and editors who left last winter, the Times is hiring dozens of videographers to create new content for the paper’s website. And in February, it was Thompson who hired a general manager of video production, Rebecca Howard of AOL and the Huffington Post, to oversee the new video push. Though she was billed as part of a “video-journalism” effort, Howard is a business executive with an office in the editorial suites. When it was announced that the video unit would be reporting to the corporate side of the paper, “Jill was clearly shaken by it,” says a person who was in meetings with her.
Thompson argues that Abramson is very much involved in the paper’s video efforts. “It’s not been imposed on the newsroom,” he says. “It’s a big part of Jill’s agenda.”
The video rollout is an important part of Thompson’s ambitions to create a genuinely multimedia Times. Pushed on specifics, however, Thompson has little to reveal about what Times video will look like. “What I’ll say about video: It’s not there to replace great written journalism,” he says.
Of course, there’s ample skepticism about the value of the video unit. Some observers wonder if Thompson is only pursuing it because it’s what he knows from his tenure at the BBC. And besides, it’s hugely expensive to do well, especially against competitors like Google and Facebook.
The most-watched videos so far have mostly been on the softer side of the news. Thompson has enthusiastically pointed out to colleagues that one of last year’s most popular videos was an instructional on how to roast a turkey for Thanksgiving. “I’m not ashamed of the fact,” he adds, “that in the sections of the newspaper, in areas like dining and travel, that we’ve got big characters and we can make attractive video there as well.”
Thompson meets regularly with reporters and editors, but he is still a mystery. “There wasn’t a grand plan,” says one reporter who heard him out. “Maybe there isn’t a grand plan. Sell tchotchkes, do this, do that. You could reasonably infer what he’s talking about is chipping away at that wall between business and news.”
As the chief defender of the newsroom, Abramson has evidently made that inference, occasionally chafing at Thompson’s authority. She “thinks he is moving far too quickly and far too haphazardly in knocking down the wall between journalism and business,” says a person with close ties to the editorial ranks of the paper.
“There’s a general sense that [Thompson] is off trying to create new products and new ideas and go down a hundred roads,” adds a prominent columnist at the paper. “And I’m not sure he’s keeping her in the loop on all those roads.”
Thompson and Abramson are partners, but the partnership is not easy. In a memo last month, Abramson announced with fanfare that Sam Sifton, the editor of the national-news pages, would be stepping down from his editorial job to help invent a new online magazine, as well as an unnamed project with a focus on food. She managed to move Sifton, a favorite of hers, off the national desk, where he was considered a talented writer and editor but a poor fit for the job, and put him on a new digital project that was not her idea. The online magazine, which promised more content like last year’s Pulitzer Prize–winning multimedia interactive story “Snow Fall,” was the brainchild of the corporate side of the Times.
Asked about the genesis of the new web magazine, Thompson says, “Well, [Abramson’s] certainly expressed her enthusiasm to me about that idea. I can’t remember who came up with it.” (In fact, the idea was inspired by the corporate consulting firm McKinsey & Co., whose research showed that food and politics were areas of opportunity for developing editorial products.)