Exclusive: Internal Documents Tell the Tale of Inquirer Editor Bill Marimow’s Dismissal

One side of it, anyway.

Bill Marimow

Bill Marimow

Inquirer editor Bill Marimow was fired after many months of infighting with publisher Bob Hall, according to internal documents anonymously delivered this afternoon to Philadelphia magazine.

The paperwork includes a notice of termination from Hall to Marimow, dated today, and a seven-page email from Hall to the ownership group of Interstate General Media, also dated today, in which the publisher seeks to justify Marimow’s firing. In the notice of termination, Hall indicates that Marimow will continue to receive his salary and benefits, as per his contract, through April 30, 2014.

Hall’s email shines light on a paper trail he appears to have been building toward Marimow’s dismissal for many months now. And it also provides some insight into the fracture separating the ownership group of the Inquirer, Daily News and philly.com.

Hall did not return phone calls or an email to confirm or deny the authenticity of the letter we received.

However, in the email attributed to Hall, he writes that he and associate publisher Mike Lorenca have attempted to make personnel, content and online changes to the Inquirer. They were frustrated, however, by Marimow’s reluctance to follow through on their directives, and what Hall describes as the efforts of co-owner Lewis Katz and his longtime companion, Inquirer city editor Nancy Phillips, to shield the editor from Hall’s authority.

The changes Hall sought include: expanded local coverage, with less focus on “police blotter” material; major improvement to business coverage; a more collaborative relationship with philly.com; an employee performance review system; and, finally, multiple personnel changes.

After what the email attributed to Hall describes as “months of recalcitrance by Marimow,” Hall, Lorenca and businessman Gerry Lenfest, a partner in Interstate General Media, met with Marimow on July 16th, 2013, and informed him he could lose his job if he didn’t take action on these directives.

Over the next several weeks, according to the email, Marimow presented a “plan to move forward”–which Hall, in the email, seems to regard as a limited improvement–but continued to delay and decline any overhaul of his staff. As a direct result, Hall fired Marimow today. The email, if authentic, only captures one side of the story: Hall’s. Marimow did not immediately return messages seeking comment for this article. The email does seem to capture the tension of the city’s biggest newspaper, battling for eyes and increasingly scarce ad dollars while also fighting among themselves.

Katz is described as interfering with Hall’s attempts to bring Marimow to heel, “seeking to block” Hall’s recommended firings when the editor objected. “What it comes down to,” writes Hall, “is that Marimow does not want to make the changes and is relying on interference by Lewis Katz to accomplish this goal.”

During a time when papers across the country seem to be making changes faster than ever, searching for ways to stay financially and culturally relevant, Marimow comes off as seeking to maintain the status quo. During redesign talks, Marimow is described as calling for “evolution,” and “not revolution.”

From the email: “His staff has complained directly to Mike Lorenca that editors fear that Marimow is not supporting the redesign.”

Hall also dings Marimow for providing only “limited improvement” in coverage of New Jersey. “…There are days when there is a void of Jersey news in the Jersey edition,” he writes.

Marimow also allegedly refused to make editorial changes recommended by research into what Inquirer readers want, and also belittled that research. For the data-driven George Norcross, one of the paper’s new owners and, according to newspaper union executive Bill Ross, the chief foil to Lewis Katz, this must have been particularly galling.

As the email winds on, however, Hall goes straight for Marimow’s gut: “Marimow does not have the support of most of the newsroom,” he writes, “in spite of what Nancy Phillips says. The informal nickname (from the rank and file) for several staffers is FOB, Friends of Bill. The Guild constantly gets complaints about favoritisms [sic] … in the newsroom from their members.”

Marimow allegedly balked at firing two high-level editors in particular. In another instance, Marimow demoted an editor when the directive had been to fire them. Further, according to Hall’s email, he continued to pay the former editor their previous, higher salary, in spite of the lightened responsibility.

“Marimow is not and never will be the change agent that we need at the Inquirer to turn around the circulation decline and grow our company,” writes Hall, in summation.

But just ousting Marimow isn’t likely to end the paper’s struggles—financially, or internally. In fact, in his email, Hall calls for some kind of “compliance counsel” to be formed, to ensure that owners maintain the pledge they took when they bought the company not to interfere in editorial decisions. “There was a very strong pledge made at the time of purchase by every owner and reinforced in a written pledge drafted by the newsroom and signed by the owners,” writes Hall. “I have always understood this pledge to preclude direct or indirect interference with issues or employment decisions within the newsrooms. From my 30 years in the industry these types of decisions have long been within the established role of the Publisher, whether public or private ownership. In fact, Bill Marimow is quoted in a 2011 article by Poynter as stating, ‘the new Publisher/CEO has the absolute prerogative to select an editor… It’s a prerogative I understand and respect.’”

But Hall says Katz has repeatedly sought to block his efforts to pull Marimow into line, and that Nancy Phillips, now city editor, recently sent her staff an email stating that “even as city editor I will keep a heavy hand in the business affairs of the Company.”

Phillips did not immediately return calls seeking comment.

A call to the Inquirer‘s main number, asking for Bill Marimow, generates a terse message from Interstate Media’s computerized phone system informing the caller that “Bill Marimow no longer works” there.

In the meantime, however, Marimow continues to deny he’s been fired at all. Newspaper Guild executive director Bill Ross says he heard, from the Inquirer newsroom, that Marimow assigned reporter Tom Fitzgerald to write about his, eh, not-dismissal, for tomorrow’s paper, and went to lunch, as usual, telling staffers “I’ll be back.”

He was as good as his word. This afternoon, a staffer on the city desk said Marimow could not be reached for comment because he was “in a meeting with an editor.”

UPDATE: A source in the Inquirer newsroom says Marimow received a “standing ovation” on his way out tonight.