At 11 a.m. last Wednesday morning, Jane Friedman presided over a meeting with her publishers and some marketing people on the 15th floor of the HarperCollins building in midtown. The meeting was about digital outreach, and offered an occasion to discuss ideas for how the News Corp.-owned publishing house could use computers to sell more books. This meeting, a regular thing, was held once every two or three weeks as part of an initiative called Publishing+ that Ms. Friedman started a few years ago. Last Wednesday’s meeting was devoted to discussing a podcast for BlogTalkRadio.com, as well as an original video that the publicity department had managed to place on a bunch of blogs to promote a recently published memoir about life in a polygamist cult.
Ms. Friedman, a chatty, 62-year-old blonde whom News Corp.’s chairman, Rupert Murdoch, installed as the CEO of HarperCollins in 1997, was engaged and attentive throughout the meeting. She did not behave like a person who knew that her job had been offered to someone else—someone sitting in that very room—two days earlier.
That same morning Ms. Friedman received a phone call from someone at News Corp. asking her to please come see Mr. Murdoch at 4:30 in his office six blocks away. According to one of Ms. Friedman’s colleagues, who spoke to her recently, the caller did not explain what Mr. Murdoch wanted to talk to her about. And so Ms. Friedman, fresh off a triumphant turn at Book Expo America the weekend prior, and with strong fourth-quarter results expected at the end of the month, went to the News Corp. building and took the elevator to Mr. Murdoch’s office. When she arrived, he told her that he had given her job to her deputy, a talented young businessman named Brian Murray who, like her, had been with HarperCollins since 1997.
By midnight that night, the entire publishing world knew that Ms. Friedman was out, and her spokeswoman issued a statement announcing that she had decided to retire and would do so immediately.
A week has passed now, and an official story has of course been established: that Ms. Friedman had accomplished everything she wanted to, and had been thinking about resigning anyway. A rumor about her departure that surfaced on Gawker.com shortly after her meeting with Mr. Murdoch had simply moved her to pull the trigger sooner.
There are questions now about what really happened, and the official story does not seem to add up. How long had Ms. Friedman known she was being replaced? Had she really submitted her resignation, or did Mr. Murdoch fire her? If he did, then why?
MORE THAN ANYTHING, HarperCollins staff are mystified by the circumstances under which Ms. Friedman made her exit, and they want to know if the Gawker tip that supposedly set everything in motion came from someone at News Corp.
Indeed, if this was not the hostile transfer of power that it appears to have been, then why was the transition carried out so quickly and unceremoniously? After all, Jack Romanos was allowed to remain CEO of Simon & Schuster for months after he announced last September his intention to retire from his post—he even got a going-away party! And Peter Olson, who until recently was head of Random House, remained CEO for weeks after The New York Times broke the news of his imminent resignation last month.
“Jane or Rupert or [News Corp. COO] Peter Chernin would have to tell us what really went down between them last Wednesday afternoon and what led to it,” as one executive at HarperCollins put it. “I wish I knew. We’d all be helped emotionally if we had a better sense of why this happened.”
News Corp. is saying nothing, though, and Erin Crum, the corporate spokeswoman at HarperCollins, has offered no information beyond what appeared in the short press release that was issued once the Gawker rumor—initially dismissed by insiders in the highest echelons of HarperCollins as so much fake gossip—was confirmed late last Wednesday.
Ms. Friedman has also declined to explain what took place—presumably because she’s negotiating a severance package and is barred from talking—and to the frustration of her staff, she did not go into details when she said her goodbyes at the weekly marketing meeting held last Thursday morning.
Over a hundred people attended that meeting. Some of them had to stand up along the walls because there were not enough chairs. When Ms. Friedman walked in, she received a standing ovation, and some people cried.
When there was quiet, Ms. Friedman said that 10 years at the top had been enough—something she had heard once from Alberto Vitale, who served as the chairman of Random House for a decade before retiring in 1998. Ms. Friedman sounded like she was speaking through tears; she apologized for this and explained that she had caught cold. For two minutes, she gave her assurance that the company was in good hands. Then she left the conference room as her staff gave another standing ovation and her successor, Mr. Murray, prepared to address the room.
THOSE WHO WORKED most closely with Ms. Friedman were perhaps more stunned than anyone that her tenure at HarperCollins was over.