Is Nancy Phillips Really the Bad Guy of the Inquirer Performance Review Flap?

The city editor is accused of making reporters cry. Is she a problem? Or a target?

Photo | Jeff Fusco

Photo | Jeff Fusco

At this point, there’s probably no journalist in Philadelphia you’d want to trade places with less than Nancy Phillips. Trouble just seems to follow her around these days.

Phillips (below), the city editor of the Inquirer, is also — somewhat famously — the companion of Lewis Katz, one of the paper’s feuding co-owners. In her role as city editor, she has also been involved in delivering job evaluations to many of the paper’s journalists. Given that most of those journalists have never before been given a job evaluation until this year, the task was bound to be touchy even in the best of times.

These are not the best of times at the paper. And so Phillips finds herself, once again, at the center of controversy.

Nancy-Phillips-TwitterThis time, she’s run afoul of the Newspaper Guild, the union representing the paper’s journalists. Guild director Bill Ross on Tuesday sent an email to the paper’s HR director (read Ross’s full email here), complaining that Phillips had been unduly harsh in her evaluations of some Inky journalists — so “harsh and critical,” he wrote, “to a point where she made employees cry.” The document was leaked to Philadelphia magazine on Wednesday; Ross confirmed to me he had written the email.

Phillips, for her part, has denied ill intent. “It pains me to think that this process has left anyone upset, as that certainly was not the goal,” she said via email.

More remarkably, news of the complaint has prompted an unusual number of on-the-record responses from Phillips’ colleagues (including editor Bill Marimow, mostly silent publicly since his aborted firing last fall) with some of them plainly angry at the leaking of the complaint document in what they considered a campaign to embarrass Phillips — and by implication, Katz, who is still embroiled in a lawsuit over control of the paper.

“I’m certain that she approached this with utmost seriousness, with kindness, and a desire to be accurate,” said Craig McCoy, an Inquirer investigative journalist who was formerly writing partners with Phillips for three years. “I’m personally weary of these unendingly negative leaks against a woman who is an excellent journalist.”

Phillips’ advocates challenged me to find one person who would put their name to a complaint against her. I contacted a half-dozen Inquirer journalists who were reportedly dissatisfied with the evaluations she gave them. None would speak. Ross, however, suggests the reporters might be afraid of retaliation if they go public — and says the complaint was not rooted in any vendetta, but in Phillips’ own behavior: No complaints were registered against any other editor in the review process, he said.

“The only complaints, from 240 reviews being done,” are about Phillips, he said.

Recent History

This isn’t the first time Phillips has gotten crosswise with the guild. In November, Ross wrote a public letter which included an accusation that Phillips — unnamed, but referred to as Katz’s “companion” — “once conducted a byline count of her colleagues, breaking down how much each earned per story written and told the owners that her fellow journalists were paid too much.” In January, it was revealed that at the time of the paper’s purchase in 2012, she emailed Katz recommendations about staffers to be replaced and urged the “elimination or curtailment” of the Daily News. And of course, she had a starring role in the trial that restored Marimow to his perch at the Inquirer, which he’d lost after having been fired by a majority faction of owners led by George Norcross.

Phillips also has a deeper history as a respected investigative journalist, most recently as the reporter who uncovered molestation accusations against longtime Daily News columnist Bill Conlin. By many accounts, she has performed well in her more recent role as city editor, despite the other controversies attached to her name.

Then the job evaluations appeared, a first-time process that newsroom workers had astonishingly avoided for decades. Marimow insisted on high standards, with a grading system in which “meets expectations” — the middle grade on a five-point scale — would be applied to the bulk of Inquirer reporters who do their work competently, and the top grade (“far exceeds expectations”) being reserved for the paper’s very top performers. “Meets expectations” was meant to convey that reporters were getting the job done; but a newsroom full of self-identified “A” students felt like they were getting their very first “C” grade.

“Because this is the first time our newsroom has experienced these reviews, I think it’s important to view these reviews in the spirit they’re designed for — to help the newsroom produce better journalism, pure and simple,” said Stan Wischnowski, the Inquirer’s executive editor under Marimow.

“In no instance were we vicious, vindictive, discriminatory as has been alleged. I think anybody who reads the evaluations completely — as opposed to summaries, which can be misleading — would reach the same conclusion,” said Gabriel Escobar, the deputy managing editor who worked closely with Phillips on the evaluations. “As to Nancy, I can tell you because I read all the evaluations … I can tell you, from my view, it was a very fair process. I think Nancy did this with the diligence and professionalism which are really her hallmarks.”

In his email to human resources, Ross disagreed.

“First off a number of Guild members have told me directly that Phillips has said Bill and Stan have said top scores are only to be given to reporters who are nationally recognized,” he wrote. “Second, Phillips has been extremely harsh and critical in some of her comments, to a point where she made employees cry, or others that may border on discrimination.”

He concluded: “Our members did their part in the reviews without a peep, and I will not let one conflicted editor get her kicks by abusing our members, or taking retribution against a few she may not like, or feel threatened by.”

Aside from her court testimony in November, Phillips has mostly been publicly silent on the controversies. But she responded to Ross’s complaint in an email to me.

“Contrary to Mr. Ross’ characterization, the assessments I did contained ample — sometimes lavish — praise,” she wrote. “Anyone who read them would see that they are full of specific examples of work to be heralded, as well as constructive criticism and suggestions for ways in which to improve.”

She added: “I resent and reject any suggestion of discrimination of any sort. That is simply not true. I do not believe that any of the reviews were unfair, abusive or retributive, and for Mr. Ross to suggest as much is offensive.” (Read Phillips’ full statement here.)

Marimow, who has also been mostly silent in public, offered his support for Phillips:

“I believe that Nancy’s reviews were replete with solid examples of excellent work and praise for individual staffers,” he told me. “I think that the reviews also included constructive criticism, which in my opinion is an essential part of a meaningful evaluation. Nancy, in my opinion, is a top-notch editor and a top-notch colleague. Her record as a reporter and her record as an editor is distinguished.”

Everybody Hurts

So, who is right? Who is wrong?

In judging the evidence, it’s important to remember that (this week, anyway) there are two sets of conflicts at the Inquirer: Owner versus owner, over the future of the newspaper. And management versus labor, over the unpopular job evaluations. In any Venn diagram of players in the two conflicts, Phillips — along with Marimow — is dead center. So she’s a natural lightning rod, and probably a target for an easy Lady Macbeth-type narrative.

What’s more, the newsroom distress over the job evaluations is very real. There are some journalists at the Inquirer who have spent a career without being offered any formal feedback suggesting that they need to get better at anything. The process was bound to produce hurt feelings.

“The very process is unsettling, both individually and collectively, and it was bound to upset some people,” Escobar said.

“We will get better at this,” added Wischnowski.

All of which leads to this likely scenario: That Nancy Phillips was just doing her job, in a job that was going to wound egos and, yes, possibly even produce a few tears. That Bill Ross was just doing his job, defending reporters who felt they were treated unfairly in the process. And that the alchemy produced by a court battle over the future of the papers — mixed in with personnel confidentiality rules that hide much of the process from public view, encouraging gossipy grievance — helped create a damaging controversy where one was neither needed nor sought.

In fact, a repeated refrain as I talked to sources on all sides of this story was that the evaluation’s timing — in the middle of ownership litigation — was, poor, to put it mildly. It set the stage for all that followed. Even Ross acknowledges that.

“I think the timing, of the ownership battle, is difficult timing for any of this stuff,” he said, but added: “I truly feel the city editor is conflicted here, and apparently untouchable.”

Mike Newall, an Inquirer reporter who sits, he said, about 10 feet away from Phillips in the newsroom, has a different take.

“You could tell it was wearing on her, that it was a tough process to be in,” he said of the period when evaluations were performed. “I don’t think she took it lightly.”

Either way, you wouldn’t want to be her.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.