Bill Marimow’s Leadership Doesn’t Buy Free Pass for Inquirer

The editor’s actions during last ownership change described by some as “inappropriate.”

When it was announced that Bill Marimow would return as editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, it was taken as a given in most quarters that his renewed stewardship of the paper would be a good thing.

The new ownership group includes businessman Lewis Katz, philanthropist Gerry Lenfest and high-powered insurance executive and Democratic operative George Norcross. Conflicts of interest are expected to abound. And on paper, Marimow is just the right guy to reassure a beleaguered newspaper staff that a steady hand is on the tiller during complicated times. He is Inquirer born and bred, winning two Pulitzers at the paper for his investigative reporting. He is renowned as a kind of journalism school on legs, advocating for tough but fair reporting. In his first tenure as Inquirer editor, from 2006 to 2010, Marimow bolstered the paper’s investigative coverage and made the paper considerably tougher.

But not everyone is applauding his return.

“I am looking at this as a new day,” says Diane Mastrull, a longtime Inquirer reporter and a member of the newspaper union’s executive board. “But Bill did do some things that you wouldn’t have expected, given his career as a rock-solid journalist, when he was here.”

According to Mastrull and the Newspaper Guild’s executive director, Bill Ross, Marimow was openly advocating for local ownership led by Brian P. Tierney even as his reporters set about covering the paper’s sale that eventually ended with a 2010 takeover by Tierney’s creditors. “He went into the newsroom and our bureaus,” says Mastrull, “and urged our union members to support Brian Tierney and the local ownership, which I thought was highly inappropriate.”

The behavior that concerned Mastrull and Ross started in February 2009, shortly after Tierney steered the papers into bankruptcy. Tierney publicly announced that he wanted to retain control of the papers, even as his creditors declared they wanted to secure ownership for themselves.

Shortly after, Inquirer reporter Christopher Hepp confirms he was dispatched to Minneapolis to meet with union representatives of the StarTribune, to investigate what he says was a tip from Tierney to look into claims that one of the creditors, Angelo Gordon, was trying to engage in a kind of slash-and-burn exercise in the Twin Cities, cutting the paper’s staff and flipping it for a short-term profit. “I went out there,” says Hepp, of a two-day trip he took in the winter of 2009, “and it didn’t check out.” (Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, Nancy Phillips looked into Angelo Gordon’s other business interests, something she confirmed to me in a phone interview.)

Hepp says he returned and wrote up a summary of his findings. “There were multiple unions there, and only one was really unhappy with the ownership.”

Multiple editors saw Hepp’s summary, including Marimow and business editor Brian Toolan. “The story wasn’t killed,” says Hepp. “I was told to keep reporting, and it just kind of never went anywhere.”

Hepp says he considered it a “tip that just didn’t work out,” and allows that he “wasn’t eager” to write a story that would contradict the publisher. The Inquirer never did publish a boots-on-the-ground story from Hepp. Phillips says her reporting came out in sections of various stories, and remembers the picture being “mixed.”

Hepp declined to go back through his records and identify exactly when he took his trip to Minneapolis but did say it was shortly after Tierney had declared the newspaper company bankrupt. Mike Bucsko, an officer with the Newspaper Guild in Minnesota, says he believes Hepp probably came out in March. “He was very straightforward about why he was there,” says Bucsko. “I mean it was one reporter talking to another reporter. And he had a puzzle laid out for him but when he got here the puzzle pieces didn’t fit.”

According to Bucsko, he thought Hepp was there to “trash the creditors and contrast Tierney with them as kind of a savior. The idea was that the owners here at the StarTribune were just going to carve the paper into a shell and walk away with the money.”

Bucsko says what he shared with Hepp is that the owners there were playing hardball with the unions in negotiations, but that they were “making an effort to stay the course and keep the paper running and viable. That’s the only way they were going to make any money.”

Toolan, who, as business editor, was monitoring Hepp’s efforts, says, “There was never any pressure from Brian or certainly Bill to make the story come out in any particular way. As I remember it, he went out and talked to the StarTribune‘s editor, the people in the newsroom, the Mayor, Guild officers and people in the community but what he came back with just couldn’t be lashed into a story.”

Marimow offers up a spirited defense of the Inquirer‘s actions, though he does admit his open support of Tierney’s “Keep It Local” campaign may have gone too far. “In hindsight,” he said in a phone interview last Friday, “I wish I had been more restrained in my support of the local owners. But I will say that it was consistent with statements I had made, publicly and in the newsroom, when I was hired in 2006 and throughout my tenure. Local owners care about the community and have a vested interest in the city and the region.”

But he categorically rejects any notion that his feelings influenced the paper’s coverage. The intention behind Hepp’s trip, he says, was to write a “comprehensive story about Angelo Gordon and all its business interests. The Minneapolis angle was just a part of it. And we didn’t produce a story, in part, because representatives of Angelo Gordon wouldn’t speak to us and wouldn’t give their side. All of my decisions were made for purely journalistic reasons … and in an effort to be fair to Angelo Gordon.”

There were plenty of opportunities for Hepp’s reporting from Minneapolis to appear in some form. A search of the Inquirer‘s archives shows Hepp wrote dozens of stories about the sale and the Inquirer ownership’s disputes with its creditors, including Angelo Gordon.

A February 24, 2009 story with Hepp’s byline, almost certainly written before his trip to Minneapolis, contrasts how the Tierney-ownership group and the StarTribune were handling respective bankruptcies. “The cases seem remarkably similar,” wrote Hepp. “Scratch the surface, however, and there are some not-so-subtle contrasts that, while not predicting outcomes, certainly suggest a different path ahead for those involved.”

The piece then goes on to emphasize the one union with whom Angelo Gordon was involved in a particularly contentious contract dispute.

In a later story, published on September 3, 2009, also written by Hepp, some of the Tierney ownership group’s “Keep It Local” ads are quoted as “extolling the virtues of ‘local ownership’ while warning that the company ‘can expect significant reductions … in employment, investment, and in subcontracting’ should ‘out of town corporate owners take over.’”

That story, clearly written well after Hepp’s trip, includes none of the information he found that would have contradicted the “Keep It Local” campaign.

An April 10, 2010 Inquirer story by Hepp stands out, quoting Tierney about Angelo Gordon: “I’m not saying these are inherently bad guys, but they do what hedge funds do: they ruthlessly go for every short-term dollar they can, which is good for their investors but not good for the community.”

In fact, according to Bucsko, by that time the company had announced a profit-sharing plan with StarTribune employees. But in Hepp’s story there’s only a line that Angelo Gordon’s managing director did not return calls.

“I spoke to Chris [Hepp] a few times,” says Bucsko. “Once when he was here and then when he called me once or twice after he got back. I think he was under the impression that something was going to run, but nothing ever did.”

It does make for an odd tableau. A bankrupt newspaper sends a reporter out of town for two days to report a story it never publishes.

According to Ross, it was after Hepp’s winter trip, during the summer or fall of 2009, that Marimow visited his bureaus and advised them of who to support in the ownership struggle. “When he went to the Cherry Hill bureau,” says Ross, “he went with Tierney, and he suggested the editorial staff call me and Guild President Dan Gross to tell us to support Brian and the local owners. It was outrageous, and I thought very inappropriate.”

The entire episode speaks to the problems associated with local ownership—to the potential chilling effect on coverage, to how even appearances of impropriety can undermine confidence in the newspaper, even with the legendary Marimow at the helm.

Toolan says that questions about a chilling effect under Tierney during the sale period are “fair” but maintains there was no influence. Mastrull and Ross both say that, essentially, those were “strange times,” and Mastrull says she is looking for a “fresh start” with Marimow. But it’s not as if the new ownership comes with any fewer complications.

Potential conflicts of interest abound. And the Philadelphia Inquirer, which watches over the community, will need to be watched, too.