NEW YORK -- After Jill Abramson was ousted as executive editor of The New York Times last week, Ken Auletta, media reporter for The New Yorker, went back and forth with the Times over details of Abramson's salary.
On Wednesday, Auletta reported that shortly before she was fired, "Abramson discovered that her pay and her pension benefits as both executive editor and, 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."
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On Thursday, Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. contradicted this account: "Her pay is comparable to that of earlier executive editors," Sulzberger wrote in a memo to Times staff, adding that in 2013, "her total compensation package was more than 10% higher than that (of Keller) in his last full year as Executive Editor."
Next up, Auletta revealed exact figures he'd been given on salaries of top Times editors:
"As executive editor, Abramson's starting salary in 2011 was $475,000, compared to Keller's salary that year, $559,000. Her salary was raised to $503,000, and -- only after she protested -- was raised again to $525,000. She learned that her salary as managing editor, $398,000, was less than that of the male managing editor for news operations, John Geddes. She also learned that her salary as Washington bureau chief, from 2000 to 2003, was a hundred thousand dollars less than that of her successor in that position, Phil Taubman."
At this point in the saga, many observers agree with Times media critic David Carr in concluding that pay-equity issues were a "sideshow" in Abramson's dismissal (the bigger issue being, in Auletta's words, "Abramson's betrayal of trust" in her colleagues during a major hiring decision). But looking at those salary numbers, here's a different question: Be it $475,000 or $559,000, why is the top editor at one of journalism's most prestigious institutions paid relatively so little?
Yes, $500,000 or so is a lot of money objectively, and that figure doesn't include bonus compensation and pension contributions. As Steven Brill points out in Reuters, individual- and company-based performance bonuses could have easily boosted Abramson's total compensation by several hundred thousand dollars (and reconciled Sulzberger's claim that she made more than Keller in terms of total compensation).
But presidents of small colleges get paid more, as do heads of charitable organizations. At major television networks, a $500,000 salary for a top-tier executive looks like pocket change. Even within print journalism, the Times' executive editor compensation pales in comparison to the seven figures that the likes of Vanity Fair's Graydon Carter and Vogue's Anna Wintour are said to earn, for jobs that are, as the Daily Beast put it, "arguably less overwhelming." Norm Pearlstine, chief content officer of embattled Time Inc., makes $900,000 in base salary (plus a $900,000 "bonus target," plus a $1.4 million sign-on bonus).
What the Times does have to pay employees tends to go first and foremost to the business side. Sulzberger received roughly $5.3 million in total compensation in 2013; the year before, he made $6.9 million. Mark Thompson, the company's CEO, took home $4.6 million in 2013, his first full year on the job, with a base salary of $1 million. The edit/business disparity might not seem fair, but when push comes to shove, people like Thompson are probably getting paid more for their ability to directly impact the bottom line.
Perhaps the bigger issue, though, is what Slate editor Laura Helmuth calls the "National Park ranger problem." Certain jobs are either so rewarding or prestigious that you don't have to pay people much of anything to do them. National Park rangers fall into the first category -- lining up for the job because of its intangible benefits, despite getting "paid in sunrises and sunsets." In terms of prestige, David Swensen, the chief investment officer at Yale University, famously took an 80 percent pay cut to move from Wall Street to his alma mater. "I feel privileged to be in a place where the resources that we generate are applied to the world's problems," he told the Times in 2007.
When Sulzberger offered Abramson the executive editor role in 2011, she said, "It would be the honor of my life." Two years later she told a Newsweek reporter, "They're gonna have to take me out feet first, or chop my head off." People like Keller and Abramson presumably don't rise to the top of their field for the money; they'd be far better off chasing huge salaries in TV. They do it because they love the work, and part of the pay is prestige and intangible rewards. Pay them more and they would what, try harder? Salary is not necessarily commensurate with performance or with on-the-job fulfillment. If you need more proof of that, just look at the paltry $400,000 made by the president of the United States.