Why was Bill Marimow fired?

     Former Philadelphia Inquirer editor William Marimow, right, participates in a front page meeting.   (AP file Photo/ Joseph Kaczmarek)

    Former Philadelphia Inquirer editor William Marimow, right, participates in a front page meeting. (AP file Photo/ Joseph Kaczmarek)

    Philadelphia Inquirer editor Bill Marimow’s sudden firing Monday followed his refusal to fire five senior staffers at the paper, including politics editor Daniel Biddle, who spent most of his career at the Inquirer and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1987.

    That fact, which I heard from numerous sources at the paper, is confirmed in a detailed, seven-page memo publisher Bob Hall wrote to the newspaper’s owners Monday to explain Marimow’s firing. But the memo goes far beyond proposed firings. Hall lays out a long and exhaustive list of Marimow’s shortcomings and sins, saying that he “has and continues to thwart changes and initiatives necessary for the success (and survival for that matter) of the newspapers.”

    Marimow supporters say the memo is crafted with threads of truth surrounded by distortion and misinformation. But it’s interesting reading.

    Culture clash

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    One of the most remarkable things about the memo is that it lays bare a deep divide among the owners who bought the Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com last year.

    The exact nature of the split is disputed. Here are two versions:

    1. To Marimow’s supporters, South Jersey business and political power broker George Norcross is meddling in the Inquirer with publisher Hall as his agent, seeking to purge staff not of his liking, and pursuing his own goals for a different kind of journalism. Norcross’s daughter Lexie runs the website Philly.com, which has had a sometimes contentious relationship with the staffs of the Inquirer and Daily News.

    2. Hall’s view, explicitly laid out in his memo, is that he’s trying to make market-tested changes in the Inquirer, and that a single owner, businessman and former New Jersey Nets owner Lewis Katz, has been interfering in the paper’s operation in violation of their agreement to let the publisher run the joint. The memo says Katz and his long-time companion, Inquirer city editor Nancy Phillips have joined with Marimow in frustrating efforts to change the paper. “The Katz/Phillips interference, unfortunately, continues to this day,” Halls’ memo says.

    Where’s Gerry?

    One person who could shed a lot of light on all this is H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest, the respected philanthropist who chairs the company board.

    A statement released by Hall Monday said that all the owners but one (presumably Katz) “concurred in our decision to terminate Bill Marimow.”

    But Lenfest told the Inquirer Monday he wasn’t aware of Marimow’s firing, and now he’s quoted in an item on Philly.com as as saying Marimow’s dismissal needed the approval of both Katz and Norcross:

    “My position is that he should not have been terminated without the approval of both,” said H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest, an owner and chairman of Interstate General Media (IGM), which controls the newspaper, the Philadelphia Daily News, and the website Philly.com.

    That requirement for agreement between Katz and Norcross, the two managing partners, is contained in the partnership agreement among the six principal owners, the philanthropist said in a brief interview, declining further comment.

    Lenfest hasn’t returned my calls.

    Hall’s memo says that Lenfest and he met with Marimow on July 16 of this year and gave him a list of steps he needed to take to improve the paper, and that “Gerry made it clear to Bill that these steps must be done or his job was in jeopardy.”

    A source I trust on the Marimow side of the argument tells me the meeting did take place and the warning was issued, but that Marimow responded affirmatively to all the needed changes except firing the five senior staffers. Thus the conclusion by Marimow’s supporters that he was fired for standing on principle.

    Since none of the people targeted for dismissal have been fired since Marimow left, one might conclude those orders were given with the knowledge Marimow would refuse, giving the publisher cause to sack Marimow.

    Another interpretation is that Hall believes the staff cuts are all warranted, but that the tremors caused by Marimow’s dismissal has made management cautious for now.

    The Hall memo lays out detailed criticisms of the staff members names. In some cases, the proposed departures are described as retirements.  

    Is this at all about journalism?

    Bitterness, mistrust and power struggles are clearly part of the story here.

    What’s harder to assess is to what extent it’s about competing visions of journalism in 2013. Hall’s memo says management wanted Marimow to embrace the redesign of the paper, eliminate police blotter filler, promote staff writing rather than wire service copy in the A section, strengthen suburban coverage, and improve relations between the newspaper staff and Philly.com.

    Folks who support Hall’s view of things say the company spent a lot of money and effort on serious reader research to back their proposals, and that the state of the industry and the economy made the need for change imperative.

    It’s interesting that the memo had almost nothing to say about innovative digital strategies. Perhaps that’s because it focuses specifically on changes sought in Marimow’s immediate domain, the newspaper.

    People on the other side of this say Hall has long shown a disdain for the deep investigative journalism that the paper featured in the past and that earned both Marimow and Biddle their Pulitzers. They see Hall as pushing fluff and neglecting the papers’ critical role as a public watchdog.

    And many have little regard for Philly.com, which they see as dismissive of reporters’ work and eager to embrace the lowest cultural denominator, such as photos of the Naked Bike Ride.

    Odds and Ends

    I’ve heard from more than one source that Katz has consulted attorney Richard Sprague about filing a lawsuit on the Marimow dismissal, basing the case on a provision in the owners’ agreement that he and Norcross would need to approve any major changes at the newspapers.

    Hall told me Monday he clearly has the authority to run the papers, and his memo cites a provision in the owners agreement to that effect.

    Neither Katz, Hall, Phillips nor Norcross returned my calls Tuesday, though a spokesman for Norcross called to say he couldn’t talk. Sprague did not return a call on Monday.

    Marimow declined to discuss the Hall memo in detail, but said he thought it was “outrageous that someone distributed to the press private personnel records. My view is that this is the kind of thing that should stay in a personnel file.”

    Marimow said he was proud of the work he’d done at the Inquirer under difficult economic circumstances that he hopes “some day, somehow, I’ll once again be the editor of the Inquirer I love.”

    Dan Biddle confirmed he was on the firing list, but declined to comment further.

    And I heard from former Philadelphia mayor and Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, who wanted to volunteer an opinion on Marimow’s dismissal.

    “I was shocked and totally mystified,” Rendell said. “You know Bill Marimow over the years has beaten me up at times, but he’s a terrific journalist, has incredible integrity and the newspaper is better than it’s been in years.”

    For what it’s worth, Katz and Rendell have known each other for years, and Katz has contributed to his campaigns for office.

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