Saturday, May 17, 2014

Baaaad Baaaad Bosses! One of Journalism's Tiny Imperfections



Why Bosses Tend To Be So Miserable, Difficult and Troubling in Journalism. A Memoir.

I am certain you have now concluded the New York Times is among the worst run places in the world of business, but I am here to assure you that is not the case, and to argue that many news organizations are run by perhaps the worst managers of all, that would be, in some cases...

Former Reporters!

First, a review of the particulars. To those of us who live outside the sanctum, word arrived this week that Jill Abramson was being bounced as executive editor of The New York Times. Her allies got to the news blower first and suggested it was because she was upset at her pay, said to be less than that of her predecessor, Bill Keller. That explanation had just enough time to firm up when it was blown clean out of the water by publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. who started a quick step aimed first at the staff and then at the rest of us.

No, he said, Jill was NOT paid less than her predecessor. The New York Times believes in equal pay for equal work, and so on. In fact, she was paid MORE than her predecessor.  Arthur suggests the problem was really about management style, how she was just a great journalist (true!) and a fine editor (maybe!) but just could not get the staff on her side, for some reason.

The mental word association "bitch," which is cruel, unfair and sexist, seems to pop up any time I read these things. I would never say or think that about her. Toughness and bitchiness are not the same things. Bitchy is someone who nags you like an unhappy spouse until you jump off the nearest ledge. Toughness is jumping off the nearest ledge because, goddamn it, you know SHE would do the same thing in that circumstance and you owed it to her.

My boss at The Chicago Tribune, Ann Marie Lipinski, was tough and the kind of editor I would leap off of the ledge for, but I would respond with a determined "fuck yourself" if anyone suggested she was a "bitch." She knew how to win people to her side with reasoned argument, set high standards and serve up nice big ladles of warmth when that was necessary. Jim Squires, her predecessor, was much the same, but a completely different kind of animal. Nuts in an engaging way for some of us, but just nuts for others. He was bold, pushy and affectionate. In both cases Squires and Lipinski, this worked for me.

Of course they both played favorites. They all have played favorites. It reminds me of one of old Mayor Daley's responses when someone asked him if he had given a contract to a city hall friend. He said something like, "You would expect me to give it to an enemy?" They were called Friends of Ann Marie (FOAMS) in her case, and I could never figure out how you got to be one until I heard from someone that I actually was one! I was immensely surprised and flattered because I avoided her as much as I could. I trusted her, but I didn't want to be seen as a suck up, especially when I was running the Sunday Perspective section, which I took over in 2001 on the grounds I would not have to meet with anybody very much and would pay attention only to the special voices in my head. (That 'nuts' thing works both ways. It worked for about five years, a good run.)

What I learned in 27 years at The Tribune and ten years at UPI before that and a couple of years at little papers even before that is an enduring lesson that plays right into the New York Times story. The fact that you are a great reporter and great handler of copy doesn't mean you will be a great boss. In fact the things that make you valuable in those areas, independence, diligence, drive and so on, may work against you when you slip into the unusual world of managing people.

The problem with bossing is that it shines a bright light on all of our weaknesses, amplifies them, and makes them defining characteristics that slip into the narratives of our careers. You actually get to hear people suggest you were a gaping asshole, something you were not aware of at all.  I think I know why.

First, there is no point in working for a newspaper that isn't pushy, so that's part of the formula. Second, pushy newspapers need to achieve great things. They do that with their staff, which is motivated by its editors, if everything works well. What you want is enough respect so if you say, "please go through this wall for me," your colleagues will say, "Yes Charles, because we know you would do it for us." That doesn't happen much. Most of the time you have to default to authority, which is the worst tool to use with people who are smart, creative and aggressive.

Defaulting to authority. That's what being pushy is about.

I had a great piece of advice from John Crewdson, a reporter without equal and a man with both Sherlock and Mycroft wrapped mysteriously inside, and a very hard boss. "Don't ever tell people you are asking them to do something because I want it. It has to be because YOU want it. You need that authority." That's pretty hard to build without training or experience, so you fall back on what seemed to work for people in your career, bullying and pushing people around.

I was a ghastly boss, I think, because I didn't like the idea of it. Even though I kept getting promoted no matter where I worked (mystified to this day about that!) I would usually revert to doing everyone's work myself and then spreading lots of praise to spackle over the damaged egos. The work would be well done, because I was good at it, but that wasn't the point. I became the person no one wanted to work with, the black hole that stared at copy and sucked in everything around me, emerging a bit later with, admittedly, a pretty good story.

That was all a mistake. I don't keep a list of people who dislike me because of how I was as a boss, but it would be pretty long, I think. I really regret that, not being the kind of leader I wanted to be.

That is why I have some feeling for Jill and her difficulties at the New York Times. She was given control of a whole room of very spirited horses, and apparently thought the whip was the best way to get them to jump through hoops. The took every crack personally and obviously whinnied right up the power chain so everyone knew how unhappy they were. In her defense, a long line of predecessors back many years were equally pushy and difficult. But they were men. In men, that is viewed as strength, although it is not.

All of these stories about failed management are individual, I know that. But somehow, at newspapers, they are not surprising. Being pushy can get you up the ladder, but it won't work unless you understand the people behind you have knives.

At least that's how it seems.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Inside the New York Times!



What, exactly, is going on at the New York Times and why we'll never know and why the real problem is everywhere else!

Let's assume your every waking hour is not occupied with thoughts about The New York Times and what just happened to its editor, Jill Abramson, who was unceremoniously dumped by the head capo. 

The first round of scuttlebutt from the paper obviously came from Jill supporters who let it be known she boldly challenged upper management because she was being paid less than her predecessors in the job. It was a very convenient and dependable way to grab the high ground because everyone knows equal work demands equal pay everywhere. In light of all that, we got this on Huffington Post. It makes Jill's situation seem pretty unfair. One might argue she didn't have to take those jobs at those salaries at all, but that is thinking in retrospect. If one is committed to equal pay for equal work, and the New York Times and the liberal establishment certainly is, then all you can think is that the situation had a really bad smell to it.

The New York Times fired back with its own Sulzberger-level broadside cum explainer in which the boss did everything but hang Jill's knickers on the front of the building for everyone to see. The not so hidden message is that Jill was crabby and pushy in the newsroom and maybe just too cranky to be in charge.  If this was aimed at calming the furies, probably not. She went from being an underpaid, tough, diligent leader to pushy bitch in just a few hours.

Everyone knows that the last genuinely pushy bitch at the New York Times was Abe Rosenthal and that everyone else everywhere else in journalism was a cheap imitator. If it was okay for Abe to be so pushy, why wasn't it okay for Jill to be pushy? Maybe she just wanted to make certain she didn't get trapped by some Jayson Blair incarnate, the liar reporter who ruined his own career and the careers of a whole brace of Times heavyweights.

All of which takes the focus away from a big and troubling issue in journalism, the fact that women are paid lots less than men for the same work all over the place. Having now educated seven years worth of journalism classes, I can say with absolute certainly that there's no difference between men and women except that women tend to be more dependable in turning in their class work.

So I was surprised by an amazing coincidence that landed in the mail just as the Times was stumbling through its latest problem. Straight from Ernie Pyle Hall at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind. came the summary of the 2013 American Journalist survey. There's lots of dark stuff about the news business in the survey, including the fact that job satisfaction is withering.

But this is more important than that. The median salary for women in journalism in 2012 was 83 percent of the median salary for men in the same positions. Even the veterans, those with 20 years or more on the job, earned 6.6 percent less than the men. The income gap among journalists with a dozen years or so on the job is even worse, 21.4 percent.

So don't make the mistake of thinking The Times response to Jill's dismissal reflects any kind of real progress in the field. After all, gap or not, she was making a huge pot of money as editor at The Times, no matter what her predecessors collected.

I don't know what Dean Baquet, the new editor, will make as he tries to fix the mess. Whatever it is, he is worth it. Anyone who has ever worked with him knows his value and his values. The Times is lucky to have him and should have tapped him earlier.


The median salary for everyone else in journalism was $50,028, according to the university.

Man or woman, that was a great salary when I was making it in about 1981.

Pretty sad for now.

Saturday, May 10, 2014



Is that a bud on the Chicago Hearty Fig Or Are You Just Happy To See Me? An Ode to Spring!

Because we are survivors, we survived this winter that just would not end.

It was the worst on record, the worst for everything,
for too much snow, for ice, for wind, for bitter temperatures
for dry skin, for watery eyes and dizziness that would not yield even to

I came to despise the perky weather women with their dire weather warnings and their
charts and their breathy rants on covering up and staying inside and hiding and turning
away from the outdoors of life.

If it was so bad, why were they pursing an eternal quest for backdrop? Highway overpasses, a lot. Downtown streets. Anywhere snow looked bad and people looked
miserable. What do they know? I stopped watching. Just as easy to follow it all on an iPhone.

I been some places, you know?

Red Square, 1977

In a Russia so cold the snow evaporated after it fell and formed fog that became
a dust-like ice that covered everything and sucked every drop of humidity from the
apartment to the frigid window where it caked thick as a frozen pond, but vertical.

So cold that it became hard to breathe, hard to walk, hard to think, hard to write.
Teletype keys so gooey and slow cables could not be sent. Frozen tea in a cup on
a windowsill that framed an endless, unyielding gray, frightening, depressing,
heart-breaking winter.

In Siberia I saw pike hard as baseball bats resting on the frozen rivers just a few
minutes after they were snared by ageless, wrinkled old men with grand fishing skills and blood that pumped on at 50 below.  A friend cooked a pike for me. She thawed it in the bathtub and snapped its guts out like they were made of plastic then, using its needle teeth,  clamped the big fish into a circle. Onions, white potatoes in the center.

I don't remember her.

I don't remember how it tasted, only how it looked.

A pike donut.

Moscow was exciting, with its Communists and its spies and its long-legged ballerinas with promise in their eyes and deceit in their hearts. I loved the place almost as much as I hated it. Not like winter here, because of the unique first shot of vodka feeling caused by being watched all the time. Dangerous.  Exothermic. I miss that fear. I miss that place. I miss that time.

Here? Just cold beyond patience in the land where you can always get anything you want, but not a change in the weather. You have to get into a plane and chase it.

For a while, I was sick. I was afraid it would not stop. My knees hurt. My back hurt. I felt so old, such a betrayal delivered by the simple passing of time. Fear of steps. What the hell happened to the bold me that used to be?

These were my racing thoughts as I wandered out into the back yard on this perfect May afternoon, feeling healthy with my dog scampering around in the yard and my wife working her diligent, patient ways with plants.

My father's day fig. A great gift from my son.

Did it make it through the winter?

It was so robust last year. A dozen fresh figs, delicious beyond description.

Was that dead, too?

My wife called me.

She pointed to tiny green buds on the beaten brown limbs.

What was buried by winter was coming back to life.

We are all like that.