A Brief Response to Stu Bykofsky

He didn't like my column about Bill Marimow. Here's why he's wrong.

There’s so much invective and so little actual argument in Stu Bykofsky’s criticism of my column on Bill Marimow’s firing from the Inquirer that I almost didn’t respond—I’m not interested in getting into a name-calling contest with a man who’s obviously far more equipped to the task than I am. I’m also aware of the dangers of boring general readers with a journalistic pissing match.

But Stu, in his eagerness to instruct me about how real journalism works, has got a couple of things wrong—or at least, misunderstood—about my critique, and I think it’s worth correcting the record. I’ll try to keep this short.

“Mathis isn’t fit to lick up Marimow’s vomit.” Actually, this is probably true. Marimow has two Pulitzers. He’s done good journalism and shepherded good journalism throughout his career. I can’t touch that. If anybody perceived me disrespecting Mr. Marimow in my piece, then I want to correct that impression: I envy the career he’s had. Stu suggests I’m animated by “personal pique” at having previous suggestions brushed aside by Marimow. Flatly untrue.

Still, I don’t believe Mr. Marimow is beyond critique.

“Mathis is supportive of Norcross.” Nope. I can see how Stu might’ve got that impression—George Norcross mailed my piece about Mr. Marimow to the newsroom this week, apparently—but I think a closer look at what I actually wrote suggests otherwise:

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.

That’s not quite a “pox on both their houses.” But it doesn’t really take Norcross’s side, either. As Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton tweeted after reading my piece: “Totally possible to be (a) a very talented editor (b) victim of a screw job and (c) not the right guy to be in charge.” That captures what I was trying to convey—but it also defies an easy “good guys versus bad guys” narrative.

“Mathis then lectures Marimow on the future of journalism, which is digital, we all know that, but demonstrates his stupidity by writing the Inquirer will die. If it exists digitally, it will not die.” Here Stu makes a presumption that I won’t: That the digital future will work itself out somehow, and that the Inquirer will live to see it. Given the paper’s near-death experiences in bankruptcy and ownership turnover in recent years, the presumption seems foolish to me.

And that’s really the foundation of my critique: Perhaps there’s a secret document somewhere detailing Bill Marimow’s digital plans for the Inquirer, but if they exist, almost nobody has seen them. They haven’t been made public. There’s precious little public evidence he was oriented towards shepherding the Inquirer to that future. That future will be what the Inquirer’s editors and journalists make of it. It will not manifest as if by magic.

“He is fighting for what he sees as the values of journalism itself. … In this business, gate-keepers are required. Marimow did not want to see the Inquirer turn into the New York Post.” Which, fine. But guarding standards is only half the battle of the modern editor. As I said in my original piece:

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.

Beyond that, Stu’s piece boils down to name-calling and frequent assertions that nobody knows who I am—as if the quality of my ideas depended on my relative level of fame. It’s a bunch of dick-swinging that does precious little to advance ideas about what the future of Philly journalism should be … so in that respect, it’s pretty much exactly what you’d expect.

Thanks to Stu’s angry blog post, though, a few more people know who I am. They talked about me on Twitter today! I feel like I finally got my Philly baptism! Lucky, lucky me.