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The Inquirer’s next-biggest problem

Call it a helluva footnote in the ongoing Inquirer bankruptcy saga. It all started back in 2008, when sports columnist and voluble talking head Stephen A. Smith was fired — officially over Smith’s indignation at being downgraded from columnist to reporter, though Inky editor Bill Marimow also flatly admitted he was dumbfounded by Smith’s salary of roughly $200,000. Smith protested; an arbitrator was called in and last September ordered Smith reinstated as a columnist, complete with the raises built into his contract. In November, Smith began writing again, and the Inky’s been paying him some $225,000 a year for his efforts. But it didn’t run the columns.

For months, the paper’s brass wouldn’t publish Smith, according to Newspaper Guild executive director Bill Ross, unless he vowed to lay off the political commentary he’s become known for, which they say violates the paper’s code of ethics. Smith has broadened his brand in recent years: On his radio talk show and as a commentator on CNN, he’s opined on everything from health care to the meaning of Michael Jackson. And so it was war: When Smith penned a piece on Allen Iverson’s retirement announcement, the Inquirer made its point, printing a wire-report story — without attributing the initial scoop to the columnist in its employ.  

Marimow has declined to comment on the fight, and Smith — for once — is also mum. But in February, the parties declared an uneasy truce: Smith’s shutting up about politics until an arbitrator determines whether the paper has the right to muzzle him, and the paper’s publishing the columns it’s been paying so handsomely for. For now, anyway.