Philadelphia’s leaning Tower of Truth

by Dave Danforth, Aspen Daily News Columnist
Imagine working at a place where a committee, comprised of two folks who openly loathe each other, can’t decide if you can keep your job.

Now imagine that you get fired by someone who thinks he’s your boss, but isn’t on the committee. Though you are a celebrated winner of a national award, the committee splits over your firing.

One committee member then runs to court and the inside story, including who’s chummy with whom, spills onto the streets of a city awaiting the details.

Welcome to the Common Pleas Court of Philadelphia, where a judge Friday just shook her head and says there’s nothing she can do to improve such a mess, though she ordered the reinstatement of Philadelphia Inquirer editor Bill Marimow.

Marimow himself had little say in the decision, which rested instead on the six warring millionaires who bought the paper and the Philly.com website in 2012 for $55 million. But very few editors can claim to get their jobs back through the graces of a judge’s ruling.

This isn’t a saga strictly over who controls the paper’s news policy. But it’s close. Throw in a digital twist — competition between the Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News and their Philly.com website. Now throw in a publisher, Bob Hall, who isn’t a journalist, thinks Marimow at 66 is “old guard,” doesn’t appreciate his vintage hard-stuff reporting, and thinks he coddles six favored senior editors. Since Hall ordered Marimow’s firing, reportedly believes the editor is stuck in long-gone glory days and wanted Marimow’s six editors terminated, the battlefield is set.

The battle could tear apart the ownership group and destroy its efforts to save an enterprise so storied that its one-time headquarters is known as the “Tower of Truth.” Ralph Cipriano, a writer for bigtrial.net, has unabashedly referred to the case as the “Inky Death Match” while intense coverage by Philadelphia Magazine has kept readers glued to the spat.

Marimow won a Pulitzer at a paper once known as a crown jewel of the Knight Ridder newspaper chain, America’s second largest such group. But that was back in 1985, when he exposed the city’s K-9 dog unit’s management as having allowed dogs to attack 350 civilians, sparking a probe resulting in the removal of a dozen officers.

Marimow’s claim to fame, 28 years ago, has made him both a journalistic legend while also subjecting him to claims he’s not in tune with today’s “serious digital strategies” for saving his industry.

The war has already struck home. Inquirer and Daily News staffers write material that demands payments under its paywall, but also runs free on Philly.com, the website that relies on advertising and digital partnering for more revenue. That puts the papers and their website in competition.

But this battle is fired by millionaire egos as much as anything. The six wealthy owners appointed two members as their “management committee” and agreed that the two would make key “business and operating decisions.” At the same time, they hired editor Bob Hall, in an industry that commonly lets its publisher decide on the editor.

Each had key owner-backers with their own agendas and their own chummy relationships. Two owners formed the management committee. One, parking-lot magnate Lewis Katz, counts city editor Nancy Phillips, whom Marimow mentored, as his girlfriend. The other, insurance executive George Norcross, installed daughter Lexie as a key executive at Philly.com.

When Hall fired Marimow, Katz protested, claiming he had a right to vote in that decision — the fact on which judge Patricia MacInerney rested her Friday decision. Group owner chairman, philanthropist Gerry Lensfest, had backed that view. He said the dismissal required approval by both Katz and Norcross.

Norcross and his backers claimed Katz was “meddling” in newsroom affairs. He vowed a legal fight, backing Hall against Katz, Marimow and the Inquirer’s stiff journalistic tradition. After Marimow’s reinstatement Friday by the judge, Norcross vowed a legal appeal, continuing the acrimony.

It’s easy to see how the judge narrowly reached her decision and why it solves little. Marimow Friday afternoon returned to a newsroom that warmly embraced him while its publisher, Hall, loathes him and most of the tradition he stands for. The judge refused Katz’ request to have Hall terminated, and Hall wrote a seven-page memo backing Marimow’s termination for having blocked his directive to fire six other editors and other initiatives. Hall also claimed reader surveys suggest readers wanted less tough police stories and more community stories, focused on suburbs as well as the city.

The battle may keep readers glued to both the Inquirer and its website. But the legal bills of the millionaires and their Interstate General Media are climbing.

The Inquirer’s legendary owner, the Knight Ridder group, sold itself under shareholder pressure in 2006. The Inquirer already has survived a bankruptcy filing that saw a public relations rep in charge for several years while Marimow was exiled to a teaching job in Arizona. In this turmoil, it sold the fabled “Tower of Truth.”

The judge solved one issue while herself conceding she couldn’t touch the cause of the conflict. Unless the six egos make peace, it won’t much matter what they once called its headquarters.
 

The writer (ddanforth@aol.com) is a founder of the Aspen Daily News and appears here Sundays.