A Judge Will Decide Bill Marimow’s Future. The Inquirer’s Outlook is Murkier.

The once (and future?) Inky editor has had two stints to create the future of the city's biggest newspaper. He failed.

The fight over Bill Marimow’s job is not a fight for the future of the Philadelphia Inquirer. It’s a fight over how much dignity the Inquirer will be allowed to retain as it slowly dies. And it is shocking how many people inside the Inquirer—from the ownership to the newsroom—don’t seem to understand that.

Marimow is 66. Retirement age. Which wouldn’t matter, except that every public indication in recent years has been that his main role at the Inquirer—aside from shepherding some really fine journalism from time to time—has been to fight to preserve the Old Ways, hold the line against the changes the Digital Age is forcing upon every segment of the news industry.

He was fired the first time for not being on board with then-publisher Greg Osberg’s vision of a digital future for the newspaper. And he was fired the second time (if internal documents are to be believed) in part because he eschewed the paper’s own research about what readers want and need from a news product. In both cases, Marimow was resisting a path forward.

And consider this: Marimow lasted just a few months at his last pre-Philadelphia job—as managing editor for news at NPR—for similar reasons. “Bill’s approach was to build out from the reporter base. He was committed to excellent journalism, but the job also requires attention to other things, to radio programming and the connection of that programming to member stations,” NPR’s Jay Kernis said at the time. “His attention was focused on part of the picture, and we needed focus on a bigger picture.”

Sound familiar?

I had my own, indirect encounter with Marimow on this front. Last year, I wrote a column suggesting the boldest possible reimagining of the Inquirer and Daily News for the digital age, one that would’ve turned the Inky into a digital-only product except on Sundays. I didn’t expect it to go anywhere, but I also didn’t expect Marimow’s critique, which he gave to the Nieman Lab, an industry publication.

He cited two reasons for delaying a massive shift into the Digital Age: First, because it would ill-serve older readers like his then-89-year-old mother. Second, because lots of people still like print. “I’m a big advocate of making sure that everyone who values our content can get it in whatever format they want it, and that includes print.”

Call it what you want, but his approach clearly wasn’t very forward-looking: “Marimow’s apparent vision seems to boil down to this: Same old Inky—trying to be all things to all people on all platforms throughout the entirety of the region—with a somewhat better web presence,” I wrote at the time.  “There is more hope than apparent strategy there.” A year later, the critique still seems salient.

I know a smart observer of the local journalism scene who believes that every move made by the owners and top management of the local papers can be explained thusly: They are horrible, horrible people. And certainly, many people believe that by defending Marimow, they are defending the values of journalism itself.

In fact, it’s possible for both things to be true. By reportedly refusing to fire old friends and dragging his heels on implementing new standards, Marimow may have been defending the newsroom from the rapacious interests of the newspaper’s owners while at the same time digging his heels in against the inevitable future.

But it’s also possible—nobody seems to ever consider this possibility—that the future of journalism will look very different from its past and still uphold high standards. The soul of the reporting trade is not found in hot lead or wood pulp; it’s in the ferreting out and telling of truths. That can be done online just as well as print. The job of top editor is to be an innovative guardian of standards. That’s complex, but it is possible, must be possible if the Inquirer is to survive.

The bottom line is this: Marimow has had two stints now to offer a vision of what the Philadelphia Inquirer will look like in that future. And we still have no idea if that vision exists, or what it might’ve been.

Which means the lawsuit filed Thursday over Marimow’s editorship is, in some respects, just so much sound and fury. If he gets the job back, the status quo will be restored for awhile. And whether he does or not, the whole incident has exposed a huge rift in the ownership group that may undermine other, better efforts to move forward, effectively leaving the paper in hospice care. That is not the fight the Inquirer—or the city it serves—needed.