Story first appeared in USA TODAY.
The 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 the curb.
• 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.
It's 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.
And 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.
Marimow, 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.
Marimow is 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.)
But 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.
But 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.)
To 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.
The Norcross-Marimow 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.
Endgame 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.