Bill Marimow’s Last Stand

The future of Philly’s major newspapers depends on whether he gets his job back or not. Small grounds for such big stakes.

Bill Marimow

Bill Marimow

There’s something wrong about the latest battle in the Philadelphia Newspaper War, the court hearing that’s scheduled to get under way around 10 a.m. today. It’s not merely that the owners of the city’s most-important media institutions — the Inquirer, the Daily News, and Philly.com — are at loggerheads, nor that they’re spending untold sums of money that could be better put to use hiring new reporters, nor even that the whole shebang has hundreds of still-employed journalists on edge.

The problem is that it all comes down to one man: Bill Marimow.

His firing from the Inquirer in early October was the spark that set the ownership war in motion. The effort to restore him has been the fuel that kept it steadily ablaze. And we can only hope that the court-ordered resolution of his job status leads, in turn, to a quick and satisfactory resolution of the issues between the owners — though, at this point, it seems foolish to expect much progress along those lines.

It is probably true that the ownership rivalry would’ve manifested sooner or later; if the fissures are there, they’ll eventually crack open, and hooboy they cracked wiiiiide open in this case. It is nonetheless true that everything that matters in this battle — the present of the Inquirer, the future of all the news entities owned by Interstate General Media — seems to hinge immediately and entirely on whether Marimow gets his old job back or not.

Awfully small grounds for such big stakes.

Let us concede that Marimow has done great things in this business: Two Pulitzer Prizes and all the rest. Let us further concede that, perhaps, he’s the great guy his staunchest defenders have made out in recent weeks — saving editors and editorial content from rapacious owners hell-bent on ignoring newspaper values to impose their own political and economic agenda on the city’s front page.

If he is that guy, then we’d like to pat him on the back with a “well done, good and faithful servant” and send him riding off into the sunset, his trail pack hopefully filled with the goldiest of golden parachutes. If he is that guy, you’d hope he might step back, look around at the carnage, and say something like:

“I’m not worth the damage this fight is doing to the newspapers. I’ve fought as well as I can; now it’s time for somebody else to make a stand, every day, in the newsroom.”

Because that guy would realize that the future of the newspapers and their staffs cannot, in the end, rely on a single editor — no matter how tough-minded and charismatic. If you’re worth a damn, you build a culture, and let your legacy ride on how well it survives you.

If he’s not that guy — if all this is instead really just about whether Bill Marimow gets to keep his job, about whether he’s the one indispensable man in Philadelphia journalism — then everything about this fight makes sense: The money spent, the relationships harmed, the credibility lost, all become a price worth paying only if there’s a belief that this guy — and only this guy — has the skill and ability to put the Inquirer back together, and to do it the right way.

If the papers — their reporters and all the other staffers, and the news they produce and distribute together — were the most important thing, one imagines that Marimow might’ve bowed out by now, walked away from this fight rather than let himself become the embodiment of friction among the owners, rather than risk a deepening of the damage with his possible return.

Then again, maybe that’s too much to ask of any fighting journalist — that he meekly accept career-ending humiliation for the sake of a newspaper that, as any journalist knows, is never going to love you back. That would be tough.

Either way: Everything about the future of Philly journalism now depends on this moment. It just seems like the moment should’ve been bigger than one man’s job.

 

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  • Anon

    Well, isn’t that the problem? The same old guard has been so protective and closed off for decades that they haven’t nurtured, encouraged, or even wanted new blood to rise up behind and carry on the legacy. Some of that is the seniority system imposed by the guild. But people there are very insecure and view newer up and comers as a threat. Now they’ve reaped what they sowed.

    • Howard Gensler

      Just to clarify, the Inquirer has 40+ top manager/editor positions who are exempt from the Guild contract. Many of these top editors, including Mr. Marimow, Ms. Phillips and others are former Guild members who left the Guild when they became part of management. The seniority rules in our contract do not apply to them. The Guild membership, by the way, has actually gotten appreciably younger over the past few years as longtime staff members have taken buyouts, quit or retired.

  • Bob Frump

    The logic here is hugely disjointed and wrong.

    There is a difference between significant precedent and silly personality issues and phillymag’s confusion of them is regrretable and results in one fine news organization contributing to the editorial decline of another.

    The issue is not Marimow’s personality, or whether he or any other single figure is indispensable. No one I know has heard Bill say that.

    The issue is whether rules about editorial control and freedom agreed to by the corporation at a crucial time in the history of this institution are followed.

    The issue is not whether Bill is indispensable. The issue is whether the control of the Inquirer news room will be run by a South Jersey pol contrary to the agreements made.

    Let’s look at the history.

    The Inquirer and other news ops often have been protected from direct publisher hire-fire power. KRI did this for decades. Time Inc did it until recently. A corporate news head made the call on hirings and firings of editors. This was done for a reason — to protect the integrity of the news division from half-vast publisher schemes.

    What was set up here with Marimow was along those same lines. Bill Marimow was needed by the paper in order to assure the community, the investors and the company’s business partners that the Inquirer would remain a serious news operation.

    Primarily, this seemed to be needed because of Norcross’s reputation as a pretty ruthless political force. A valid counterweight to that reputation was Bill’s reputation as a pretty damned pure editor.

    So the rules were put in place that the publisher — who in fact was anti-Marimow — would be subject to the management committee on bill’s hiring and firing.

    So what happens? Publisher Hall reaches across Marimow’s shoulders and attempts to fire five editors, and when rebuffed, fires Bill instead.

    And Norcross installs his 26-year-old daughter as a key exec on Philly.com , which competes with inquirer.com.

    Have Marimow fold his cards and what happens? Norcross wins, and Hall, who has violated the governance rules of the corporation, wins. Any future editorial freedom is effectively forever flummoxed.

    If someone needs to leave here, it is Publisher Hall, who did fine work in the 1980′s but simply does not understand the business world of newspapers in 2013 and has lost the most basic concept any great publisher needs to keep in mind: editorial quality first and foremost.