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Mind the gap, Jill Abramson. The pay gap for women.

Abramson: "pushy" for equality? Credit: Creative Commons

If speculative reports are accurate, Jill Abramson, the fired New York Times executive editor, may want to join Seattle’s “No Wage Gap” campaign. 

Abramson was dismissed abruptly Wednesday, even though she’d only been on the job since 2011, and reports suggest she might not have gotten the same pay as her male predecessors.

Inquiring minds ask: What led to Abramson’s firing? The New York Times publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. told the hastily gathered staff meeting that it was because of “an issue with management in the newsroom.” Sources close to the publisher talked about mounting tensions between the editor and the publisher and said Abrahamson was “polarizing and mercurial.”

The latter two charges sound familiar to those of us who grew up in Northwest newsrooms. Having served under maybe a dozen top editors at The Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer, I can scarcely remember one editor who wasn’t eventually accused of being mercurial, if not partisan, arbitrary and out-of-touch.  

Polarizing and mercurial are textbook definitions of an editor. Few editors here were much loved beyond their first few days. The new editor (would-be savior) would arrive to rescue the paper from financial disaster and also from the evil, puppy-kicking machinations of the old editor. In the beginning, as at The New York Times on Wednesday, there would be the customary standing ovation for the new editor. Staff would know that things would be better under the new guy — hardly ever, in my day, would it be a gal.

And therein lies the premise of a piece by media reporter Ken Auletta in the New Yorker. Auletta, who has covered Abramson’s career (he wrote a profile of her in the New Yorker in 2011), says he was told that Abramson discovered that her pay and her pension benefits as both executive editor and even before that, as managing editor, were “considerably” less than the pay and pension benefits of Bill Keller, the male editor whom she replaced in both jobs.

Sources told Auletta that Abramson had confronted top brass about the differential, leading to management’s alleged narrative that she was “pushy.” Sounds like an echo of the gender excuses heard by woman journalists over the years. Certainly it was true in the Northwest; probably equally so in the Northeast.

Gender gaps in news coverage — kind of like other ills such as smoking and occasional self-medication — were common. Pay, too, was very much a consideration. Although Seattle papers were unionized in the late 1930s, meaning that reporters — male and female — received generally comparable pay, depending on length of service, there was discretionary pay for columnists and editors (almost exclusively an old boys’ club unless you were supervising the old women’s page).

There apparently were other issues in the Abramson story. She had hired a number of women editors at the New York Times, including the paper’s first woman public editor. She’d also attempted to hire The Guardian’s Janine Gibson, planning apparently to install her alongside her then-managing editor Dean Baquet, who had originally been passed over when Abramson was promoted and who, not surprisingly, has since been appointed her successor.

Coincidentally, Wednesday’s news also covered the dismissal of the woman editor at Le Monde, Natalie Nougayrède. It seems this week has been declared “fire a female editor week”.

Journalism has ever been a difficult profession for women. Women journalists could all tell stories about basic indignities. There were times when women reporters were told that they couldn’t cover City Hall, the state Legislature or Congress because they couldn’t follow the mostly male officials into the men’s room. Even today at The New York Times, arguably the nation’s premier newspaper, the bylines are 69 percent male.

The firing of Jill Abramson may not stop traffic in Seattle, but it should. It matters that a paper of record discarded its woman editor over “brusque” and demanding behavior, for which male editors would receive awards, if not bonuses. The news we depend on in a democracy is too important to allow it to remain a male-only sinecure.

In Seattle we have been addressing the nation’s largest metropolitan gender gap (women get 73 cents on the dollar).  We’ve been working on repairing that gap at City Hall, where it’s narrower  — 90 cents on the dollar — but still not optimal. Some of us wear “NO wage gap” campaign buttons. Be glad to send one to Jill Abramson, may she wear it when she takes on her next media challenge.

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