New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson: “My strategy is to protect our newsgathering muscles’

New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson told her staff at Thursday’s “Grill Jill” session:

* “The size of our newsroom staff is about 1150 people, roughly the same size it was 10 years ago. Amazingly, we’ve managed to build out our digital operations without adding to the overall size of the newsroom.”
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* “While we are looking hard at payroll, because that is where the bulk of our budget is, we have put everything on the table in our search for efficiencies. We are looking at leases with the idea of switching to home offices; we’re looking at wire services, we’re rethinking our use of company cars. We are asking whether some things — some blogs, some sections in the print editions can be consolidated or eliminated.”

* While I have kept [publisher] Arthur [Sulzberger] abreast of our stories, this is part of the relationship I’ve had with him since becoming managing editor. In all these years, we have had a “no surprises” agreement when stories touch the New York Times or are particularly sensitive like the Princelings, I give Arthur a heads-up. That is what I’ve done for years. In all that time, he has never asked me to change a word. This has been true in our coverage of Mark Thompson. Mark impresses me as a great mind who can help us cross to safety.”

Read Abramson’s prepared remarks after the jump:

JILL ABRAMSON AT THE DEC. 20 “GRILL JILL” MEETING:

The tradition of these meetings is to begin with a table-setting presentation of the great journalism that all of you do. This doesn’t seem to be the perfect moment for a jazzy, multimedia display. This isn’t because the work doesn’t merit it. In fact, I have to pinch myself each day over the brilliance and inventiveness of our news report. Wal-Mart. The I-Economy. Syria. Sandy. The Olympics. The Election. Princelings. Elyria. Avalanche. The Sandy Hook school shootings. Everyone tells me the news report has never been better. That’s why I am so grateful to Dean Baquet. Max Frankel e-mailed me on Saturday to say, “Wow. What a sad but splendid performance.” We are more competitive than ever. Last Wednesday Nelson Schwartz and Jonathan Weisman had an excellent piece on the wealthy executives who are backing higher tax rates, including David Cote of Honeywell. On Friday, The Journal unveiled a quite similar story, focused on Mr. Cote, that had clearly been weeks in the making. On Saturday, dominated by coverage of the school massacre in Connecticut, we also set tongues wagging all over Washington with Nick Wingfield and Claire Cain Miller’s story about Mark Penn’s bulldozing for Microsoft. I didn’t need Politico to tell me that this story was The Juice, but it was nice to see it heralded as such nonetheless. I take immense joy and such pride in having a job that involves representing the excellence of your work.
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These are tough times. The secular changes that have bedeviled our industry have hardly left us unscathed. Only magical thinking could obscure this truth. We have no choice other than to be absolutely clear-eyed about the challenges facing us. And as we do this, there are clear principles that guide the news, editorial and business decisions of this company. The keystone of The Times is our news report. The keystone of that report is all of you. The Times is still a family effort. Don’t think for a minute, despite the protracted negotiations now, thankfully, behind us, that these are hollow words. We pull together in our common mission. We know the Times is our trust too, and we all consider this a blessing, not a burden.

There are three subjects that I know are of great concern to the newsroom right now, and I’m sure in your questions you will have others. There’s no reason to pussyfoot around any of them.

The first is this round of voluntary buyouts for excluded employees — that is non-Guild employees — and whether enough of them will raise their hands in order to avoid going to involuntary measures among that group. As most of you know, informational buyout packets were sent to all of the newsroom’s excluded employees from confidential assistants to members of the masthead.

The Guild also asked that its members be able to raise their hands for voluntary buyouts. We agreed and members of the Guild who were interested were able to ask for Guild buyout packets.

I won’t know everyone who is interested in a buyout until the end of January, because employees have 45 days to make their decisions after they receive the packets. If layoffs become necessary, they will be among the excluded staff only. No Guild members will be laid off.

While we are looking hard at payroll, because that is where the bulk of our budget is, we have put everything on the table in our search for efficiencies. We are looking at leases with the idea of switching to home offices; we’re looking at wire services, we’re rethinking our use of company cars. We are asking whether some things — some blogs, some sections in the print editions can be consolidated or eliminated.

In 2009, Bill Keller, John Geddes and I had to reduce the size of the staff by around 100 positions. About three quarters of those reductions were the result of voluntary buyouts. But to reach the savings we had agreed to then, we also had to layoff some members of the staff.

So this is not the first time the newsroom has been asked for a staff reduction. Why, many of you have asked, is the newsroom being asked to bear the brunt of staff reductions this time. We were a bigger company in 2009. Over the last decade the business side has reduced its staff by more than 60 percent. The editorial department is being asked now to cut their budget by the same percentage that we in the newsroom are. They are a small department and they are able to achieve enough savings through cost cutting measures that do not involve layoffs.

The size of our newsroom staff is about 1150 people, roughly the same size it was 10 years ago. Amazingly, we’ve managed to build out our digital operations without adding to the overall size of the newsroom. Over the past few years, we’ve been extremely disciplined on our expenses, mostly thanks to you and the magic of Bill Schmidt. But we’ve arrived at a point when we cannot achieve the significant savings — the most we have been asked for since 2009 — that must come from the newsroom — without reducing the size of the newsroom staff.

I won’t say that this won’t affect the news report — we may have to do less of some things or do some things differently. But I can assure you that I have a strategy that I believe protects our journalism, our standards of excellence, and our ambitions.

Most of our reporters and newsgatherers are in the Guild. If some reporters are interested in pursuing other work or find it personally advantageous right now, we will consider their requests for a buyout on a case by case basis. But my strategy is to protect our newsgathering muscles. As I poured over our editing ranks, I had several questions in mind: is every one of these jobs absolutely necessary to the high quality presentation of our work in print and on digital platforms and are they the jobs that are most crucial as we forge ahead more quickly to achieve the integrated newsroom that I have often talked to you about? Is the masthead structure reflective of those changes? Traditionally, those jobs are the most well compensated positions in the newsroom. Are all of those positions necessary and urgent and in keeping with where we need to be in our print/digital transition? In the past, we’ve had the luxury of giving employees who were department heads and other newsroom leaders different assignments, sometimes with less responsibility, but often at the same salary. We can’t afford to do this any longer. This newsroom does not have fat or dead wood. The quality of The Times news report is very much rooted in the sagacity of brilliant editors. But in these ranks, I believe, changes can be made that do not cripple what we do or lower the ambitions of excellence we share.

I think I could have done a better job of communicating with all of you about where “Invest in The Times” project stands and promise to give you as much real time clarity as I am able to. Into an information vacuum, all kinds of rumors have developed — about the buyouts, about IITT. Bill Keller promised you, “When I know something, you’ll know it.” I recommit to that same transparency.

All of us are very excited by the initiatives that have been developed to invest more in video, mobile, international and social. Many people from the newsroom have poured their energies and visions for innovation into developing these strategies. It may seem discordant in the face of the spending reductions we need to achieve, that we plan to go ahead with many of the proposals that emerged from the project. But continuing to invest in quality journalism and information is what will enable us to get through these rough years and prosper. Most of you won’t remember that when I was named executive editor I cited the novelist Wallace Stegner and his novel Crossing to Safety. We are crossing to safety and investing more in what we do creates a route for that journey. I am particularly indebted to John Geddes for devoting most of the past year to IITT and to Denise Warren and David Perpich, who have been our partners on this.

As we continue to face rough economic weather, we may not be able to immediately execute every part of the plans for the four pillars, but we plan to enact much of the work and the proposals made. Right now, Arthur and Michael and Mark Thompson are carefully assessing which of these investments puts the most wind in our sails. The immediate areas are probably video and mobile, followed by international and engagement. That doesn’t mean we are pulling back on social. Journalism is ever more social and so we will be. I remain excited about our new venture in China-and hopeful that we’ll soon be up and running again. Interestingly, many of our regular readers are accessing our China site through VPN or using other methods to circumvent the firewall. The IHT remains central to how we grow as an indispensable, global news report. We’re busy with other future plans, including redesigning our Web site.

Then there is our new CEO. Hopefully the report on the Jimmy Savile scandal, which was made public on Wednesday, clarifies Mark’s role at the BBC. As executive editor, my first responsibility is to cover the BBC story with the thoroughness and depth it deserves. A team of reporters, including investigations editor Matt Purdy, who is one of the sharpest diggers in the business, is still on the story. While I have kept Arthur abreast of our stories, this is part of the relationship I’ve had with him since becoming managing editor. In all these years, we have had a “no surprises” agreement when stories touch the New York Times or are particularly sensitive like the Princelings, I give Arthur a heads-up. That is what I’ve done for years. In all that time, he has never asked me to change a word. This has been true in our coverage of Mark Thompson.

Mark impresses me as a great mind who can help us cross to safety. Though BBC has a different business model, Mark built lucrative, successful new ventures there, including its brilliant Web site. He is also a first-class journalist. I invited him to watch the last presidential debate in my office with Dean, Susan, Rick and Joe Kahn. He had lots of perceptive notions about the back and forth between Obama and Romney. I invited him to spend a few days with me in Silicon Valley, where Mark impressed, among other people, the San Francisco bureau, where our colleagues are as anxious as all of you about our future. He answered questions with confidence and specificity. I know Mark is eager to introduce himself to the newsroom and that he will impress you, too.

Lines between our journalism and business decisions are not being blurred. The newsroom and the business side must be partners in many more things right now, from IITT, to the build-out of Dealbook, including last week’s successful conference, to the redesign of our Web site. Strengthening that partnership is important to our future. Our news report is in a class by itself and coming up with more ways to extend its reach for greater financial reward is crucial. Think about the excitement and quality Nate Silver brought to our political report. Can he do more? I agree with Andrew Ross Sorkin that conferences are, in many ways, a public rendition of what we’ve always done, interview important figures who power our world. I’ve gone to The Times’ education, energy and Dealbook conferences. Our journalists don’t throw softballs. I remember David Brooks kicking off the education conference on technology by openly expressing his skepticism that computers can solve the problems in the classroom. We pursue these new ventures without fear or favor.

So, now I open the floor to all of you.…

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