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.