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A Toast to Jill Abramson

Dear Jill,

Attention is swirling around Politico media writer Dylan Byersstory about the New York Times newsroom and how you’re a little too brusque for some tastes. The piece paints Dean Baquet as a perfectly charming managing editor who punches walls when angry. Who doesn’t like an editor who punches his fist through walls? We all want to see this at least a few times in our journalistic lifetimes, don’t we?

And I’m actually being serious.

What I like about Byers’ story is it takes you into the underbelly of a newsroom and gives you a slice of what employees really say and think. These stories are rare and entertaining reads because the weirdest, most spectacular stuff happens in newsrooms. What I hate about it is that it implies that editors and reporters need to be perfectly well-behaved human beings who are never supposed to “blow up” in a meeting. They must work out the tone of their voice. They must anticipate how each person feels. As Byers describes it, your attitude leaves employees feeling “demoralized” and as though you don’t care. Your absence makes them feel forgotten, rudderless. Do NYT staffers need office teddy bears? If the end result of Byers’ story is that you start being nice to everyone, I’m really going to well, punch a fist through my living room wall.

I find it humorous that you went all Miranda Priestly on the photographer and told him you didn’t like a picture on the homepage and then said, “I don’t know why you’re still here. If I were you, I’d leave now and change the photo.” It’s like yeah, get out of my face and fix it. I’m no feminist, but this stuff makes my blood start bubbling. If Baquet had said this, he’d be funny, charming. But you? You’re a shrew. So what if you’re “condescending” and “stubborn?” They’ll live. Unless they feel like doing your job, which is infinitely harder, more time consuming and irritating than theirs, you get to act that way. And by the way, f–k their feelings. Oh, they don’t like you speaking to them like that? Change careers.

Journalism isn’t about feelings or settling for a mediocre product. If that results in blunt talk in a newsroom, so be it. Do we really want our newsrooms to be well-behaved sanctuaries where no one ever gets pissed off or airs grievances in the worst ways imaginable? Do we want editors to be people who only politely tell us that our writing is sometimes sh-t?

I’ve had a few editors over the years who didn’t really care for me (don’t be so shocked). In one case, I didn’t want him reading my stories — he was a crappy editor (they’re out there) and there was another I preferred because he cleaned up my clutter like a surgeon, slicing out words and graphs without losing my voice. Just to be an a–hole, Editor #1 kept the file open so that Preferred Editor #2 couldn’t open it. In another instance, an editor nearly stroked out in the newsroom because again, I had a preferred editor who I wanted to look at my copy. Yes, I’m exaggerating his physical state. But he was old and his face turned fire-engine red as he stood and screamed at me at the top of his lungs about the inappropriateness of me going over his head. Sure, he was “stubborn and condescending,” and his wife gave me dirty looks at office parties. But would I have wanted it any other way or for him not to flip out? Hell no. Flip out more, please. The entertainment value is high and it’s a scene I’ll never forget.

Flatulence and fingernails in the keyboards are also hard memories to destroy.

Who wants a boring newsroom? Each has its own flare. Each has loud phone talkers and people who bother you when you’re on deadline and don’t care. There was the editor with gas. (I lived in fear of him tooting during an editing session.) The coworker who clipped his fingernails and let the shavings slip into his keyboard. The editor who (swear to God) didn’t know what polyester was. The sports editor who came to work drunk and doused himself in cheap cologne. The columnist who’d come in drenched from head to toe after riding his motorcycle in the rain. He’d burp often and frequently told me I resembled his ex-wife. There was the editor who took offense to the word “negligee” ever being said in the newsroom. The employee who’d pound through the newsroom like a herd of wild elephants. She wrote a love letter to a coworker in French. I once had a neighbor who placed a vibrating massage device on her chair for a back condition. It was loud and shook and I told her that thing wasn’t staying on. My thinking: As long as Valium exists, this wasn’t necessary. Did I feel badly about denying her a workplace back machine? Sure, for at least five minutes. How was I to concentrate with that racket going on?

The larger point is that if we want to work in thoughtful workplaces with bland, mild-mannered bosses and coworkers who care about our feelings, get the hell out of the newsroom. These places are special, but they are not hotbeds of mental health and politeness doesn’t and shouldn’t abound. Get over it.

And please, Jill, don’t change.

Sincerely,

FishbowlDC

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