Bill Marimow Deserved Better

The Inquirer canned a respected editor because he lacks digital chops — then kicked him on his way out the door

I don’t know Bill Marimow, the recently deposed editor of the Inquirer, personally, but I was surprised when he got sacked.

I shouldn’t have been.

Marimow’s an old dude (I can say that; I’ve got age cred), and old dudes in publishing get whacked these days as frequently as you see hitters shaking their heads and returning to the dugout after facing Doc Halladay.

Still, though, as mentioned in this space previously, it seemed the Inquirer had been regaining some serious mojo in recent months, which is why the timing of the dismissal seemed a little off. [SIGNUP]

The Inquirer had covered the bizarre Carl Greene saga with the edginess and gusto it deserved, and the paper has been all over the many gloomy and often-inexplicable machinations that emanate from the city’s confused school system.

Even more impressively, the Inquirer took the recent report that Philadelphia was the poorest big city in the country to their heart, giving big play to the state of poverty in the city, an issue that would rank lower than drainage concerns in terms of reader appeal on any news editor’s roster.

The Inquirer’s story last Sunday on hunger in the city’s First District—a slice of geography that runs hither and yon up and through North Philly and has a poverty rate of nearly 29 percent, the poorest of any district in Pennsylvania—was a prime example of meaningful reporting.

Here’s how that story began:

“There’s not enough food in Imani Sullivan’s life.

“At home, Sullivan, 31, often doesn’t set a fork for herself at the table so that her sons, ages 3 and 10, can eat.”

Takes some guts to go with that kind of grim story in a circulation challenged newspaper in their all-important Sunday edition.

Judging from an admittedly unscientific and informal reading of Inquirer staffers, Marimow was both liked and respected, a Herculean accomplishment, which you would think would count for something, given that through not fault of his the newsroom he led had been in a state of collective fear for their jobs throughout his entire tenure.

Company management gave a reason for Marimow’s departure: he didn’t have the background in digital media necessary to lead the paper going forward.

No idea if that was the case, but best believe that if you’re making your dough in the media world and you’re not punching your digital ticket every day, you’re going to be thrown out into the cold dark dawn where the wolves lie in wait before the sun rises on a new day.

I don’t know the Inquirer’s new acting editor, Stan Wischnowski, either, though he’s reported to be a man who does have digital chops. What I do know is that the statement he made when he landed his new temp gig as the Inquirer boss man sounded like a scene out of 30 Rock:

To wit: “We look forward to turning our complete attention to our award-winning journalism. I sense that there’s a pent-up desire in these newsrooms to turn this place into a fully integrated, digital powerhouse, and we are now in a position to make it happen.”

Wischnowski’s statement was posted on the Inquirer Alumni facebook page, which at one time was loaded with golden memories of ye olde Pulitzer days, but is now filled mostly with posts from Inquirer editors and reporters bidding colleagues adieu.

The very first comment posted on the facebook page reacting to Wischnowski’s statement about the pent-up desire of the newsroom to become a digital powerhouse consisted of two words:

“Eat me.”

That sentiment, retro as it may sound, rings exactly right.

Not because Stan Wischnowski is a bad dude and not even because what he said wasn’t well intended, but because his words were cold, calculated, scripted—and issued before Marimow had the chance to move his stuff from the editor’s office to his old reporter’s desk.

Everyone in the media world, even the remaining few codgers who still wish they could wield a blue pencil or yell rewrite to somebody five desks away, knows the bus long ago took to the online highway and there’s no turning back; the case closed on the print versus digital bad boy a lifetime ago.

What we’re dealing with now are the death throes.

But death throes can drag on sometimes, and care must be taken. What’s consistently overlooked in all the bazillion of words written every week about the conversion from print to digital is the absolute need for the guardians of the new tech platforms to behave with compassion, to respect the values of the old platform chieftains that are handing them the blueprints of yesterday to redesign and build anew.

For the digital architects to win the hearts and minds of those they hope will someday buy their product, they need to treat those who passed the batons with old world kindness. It’s the one thing no one wants to see slip away.

Tim Whitaker ([email protected]), a writer and editor, is the executive director of Mighty Writers.