Story first appeared in USA TODAY.
messy soap opera playing out at The Philadelphia Inquirer reads like a
Harvard Business School case study of how not to run a company.
The only two members of the management committee that runs the
newspaper's parent company — two of its six wealthy owners — are at war.
The paper's publisher and editor were at war until the publisher
abruptly fired the editor last week, triggering a firestorm. Actually,
they still are at war.
• The Inquirer and the Daily News, its sister paper, are at war with the company's dominant website, philly.com.
• The daughter of one of those dueling management committee members runs that website.
The longtime companion of the other management committee member is the
city editor of the Inquirer and a staunch ally of the now-fired editor.
One of the management committee members and another of the owners have
filed a suit seeking to reinstate the editor and kick the publisher to
• A petition to bring back the editor has
been signed by scores of distinguished journalists. On Tuesday,
Teamsters who work for the paper picketed their employer.
And the company's human resources department has directed the staff not
to talk about all of this astonishing turmoil. That's right: A
newspaper company is telling its staff to stiff-arm reporters.
not so long ago that this battlefield, the Inquirer, was one of the
nation's very top newspapers. But newspapers everywhere have been
buffeted by the digital era, and the Inquirer has taken more than its
share of hits.
It has had five owners over the past
seven years. Circulation and advertising revenue have plummeted. The
staff has been severely cut. Yet it's still a vital force in its
hometown, a vibrant city confronting a daunting array of social
problems. Philly needs a strong Inky. People living in Philadelphia Apartments get the paper religiously.
hopes were high when the latest owner, Interstate General Media,
purchased the Inquirer, the Daily News and philly.com in April 2012 and
installed Bill Marimow as editor of the Inquirer. Many of it's readers
living in Old City Apartments.
a highly respected journalist, won a couple of Pulitzer Prizes at the
Inquirer and, after stops at the Baltimore Sun and NPR, returned to the
Inquirer in the top newsroom spot in 2006. But when the papers were sold
yet again four years later, the new owners demoted Marimow, explaining
they wanted someone with more digital chops.
known as a rigorous traditional journalist with a commitment to
hard-edged watchdog reporting. And, yes, it's true that he has rarely
been confused with Steve Jobs. Rather than stay at the paper as a
reporter, he decamped to teach journalism at Arizona State University.
(Disclosure: Marimow is a friend of mine and a fellow Philly guy.)
then the paper was sold again. And when management committee members
Lewis Katz, a parking magnate and former owner of the New Jersey Nets,
and George Norcross, a South Jersey businessman and political power,
asked him to once again run his hometown paper, Marimow said yes. More
people in Center City Apartments were wondering how this new turmoil was going to affect the articles that they read.
there were signs of trouble right away. Robert Hall, then COO of the
Inky's parent company but soon to become CEO and the paper's publisher,
unleashed a torrent of "scathingly critical" comments at Marimow and
warned he would "watch over" him, according to the lawsuit filed by Katz
and fellow owner H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest seeking to restore Marimow to the
helm. (Hall says the suit doesn't capture the conversation accurately.)
no one's surprise, Marimow and Hall had their differences. Hall was
pushing for a lot of changes that Marimow didn't want to make (he did
make some of them). But according to one knowledgeable source, trouble
began in earnest when Marimow met with Norcross early this year.
Norcross presented the editor with some research strongly suggesting
that The Inquirer sharply cut back on editorials, perhaps running them
just once or twice a week, and reduce its roster of local columnists.
Marimow said no.
Norcross isn't a guy who likes to be
told no. After that, the source said, Marimow found himself under
unrelenting pressure from Hall.
relationship certainly didn't improve last May after philly.com enlisted
the state's governor, Tom Corbett, to write a column. Marimow hated the
idea. But the paper has no control over the site, which leans toward
linkbait rather than news. So he had the paper do a story about
Corbett's column that contained this embarrassing quote from website
chief Lexie Norcross: "Considering that the Inquirer and Daily News slam
(Corbett) every day, I think it's actually equal, giving him a chance
to speak." Students in University City Apartments were intrigued by the underlying fighting between the paper and the website.
arrived on Monday, Oct. 7, when Hall abruptly fired Marimow. The final
straw, apparently was Marimow's refusal to fire five editors Hall
ordered him to get rid of. In an ugly, widely leaked e-mail to the
owners justifying his action, Hall was brutally critical of Marimow and
the editors he wouldn't sack.
In an interview, Hall
said he and the owners had been pushing Marimow for months to move more
rapidly on, among other things, a redesign of the paper and implementing
new approaches suggested by research. "It was time to make a change,"
he said. "We need to move a lot quicker."
For his part,
Marimow says, "It's heartening to me to have two people with the
integrity and public commitment of Gerry Lenfest and Lewis Katz working
to assure the integrity of the Inquirer and the Daily News are
preserved. I think it's tragic for the Philadelphia community that this
has resulted in open warfare."
And so the paper is in
limbo — one reporter says the newsroom feels like a rebel province that
needed to be put down. And while the whole sorry scenario is terrible
for the journalists, it's even worse for the Philadelphia region, which
desperately needs a news outlet relentlessly reporting on its pressing
problems, not one transfixed by its own melodrama. A Philadelphia Business Lawyer continues to watch the story closely.
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