Bill Marimow will end his two-year tenure at NPR Nov. 24  to become editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he spent much of his journalistic career.
Philadelphia Media Holdings LLC, the Inquirer’s owner, announced the hire just three weeks after Marimow became NPR’s ombudsman.
stepping down as NPR’s top news executive, a move that disappointed many journalists at the network who saw him as an inspiring mentor and valued his extensive experience in investigative reporting. But accounts from colleagues and NPR executives suggested that Marimow came up short at other aspects of the job (Oct. 23 story ).
Marimow would not comment for this article, but his new employer says he first expressed interest in returning to the Inquirer months before the change at NPR.
The newsman wrote the Inquirer’s new publisher in August, said Jay Devine, a spokesman for Philadelphia Media Holdings. The private group of Philadelphia-area investors bought the former Knight Ridder newspaper in June.
Marimow’s inquiry came after he had seen Invincible, a film about the Philadelphia Eagles and set in the city, Devine told Current. “It made him long for all things Philadelphia,” Devine said.
Marimow, a native of Philly, worked for the newspaper from 1972 to 1993 as a reporter, editor, City Hall bureau chief and assistant to the publisher. He went on to become editor-in-chief of the Baltimore Sun but was fired in 2004, reportedly after resisting pressure from the Tribune Co., the paper’s owner, to reduce staff.
Now the Inquirer’s publisher will expect him to lay off employees. The exact number depends on the outcome of labor negotiations but could range from 50 to 150, according to media reports. The Inquirer’s circulation fell 7.5 percent from April to September, and ad revenue dropped 10.2 percent from September 2005 to a year later.
Marimow underlined differences between circumstances at the Sun and the Inquirer in an interview with Editor & Publisher magazine. “When I was fired, the Sun had profit margins that I believe exceeded 20 percent, robust profit margins; the Sun did not have debt to pay off; and the Sun was backed by an 11-paper national news organization which provided a ton of content,” he said in a Nov. 10 article on the magazine’s website. “The Inquirer is in a period of declining revenue and reduced profit margins, the new owners have a major debt service to pay off, and the Inquirer no longer has the resources of Knight Ridder to buttress the content.”
NPR is once again seeking a v.p. of news following the resignation of Bill Marimow, who held the job just eight months.
The network also has an ombudsman, once again, who suffered mixed reviews as top news manager. Marimow took the position, as Jeffrey Dvorkin did in 2000 after serving three years as news v.p.
Jay Kernis, NPR’s senior v.p. of programming, said Marimow told him of his decision to resign Oct. 5, and Kernis shared the news with NPR’s newsroom and with public radio stations Oct. 13.
The change came as a deep disappointment to NPR News staffers, who found in Marimow a knowledgeable mentor and an advocate for high-quality, in-depth journalism. The newsman joined NPR in May 2004 as co-managing editor after working for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Baltimore Sun for more than two decades. As a reporter, he had won two Pulitzer Prizes for investigative work.
“He has a store of knowledge and experience unlike anyone I’ve ever met in journalism,” said Ari Shapiro, who covers the U.S. Justice Department for NPR. “I often met with him when I was working on a story and came away with concrete, specific steps I could take to make my story better.”
Marimow’s encouragement of reporters “was the kind of thing that we don’t always hear around here,” said longtime NPR reporter Larry Abramson, who recently took over the education beat. “He raised our expectations of ourselves.”
Reporters also said Marimow deserved much of the credit for shepherding news-breaking investigative reports to the air. They cited in particular an investigation of what Merck & Co. knew about the dangers of its Vioxx painkiller, reported by Snigdha Prakash, and Daniel Zwerdling’s coverage of abuses of detainees in U.S. custody, which won several awards for investigative reporting.
But even NPR staffers who praised Marimow’s journalism said he met with less success in other areas. Some who declined to be identified for this article said he failed to understand the needs of NPR’s newsmagazines and did not adapt well to the medium of radio.
“The job is a very big job,” Kernis told Current. “It’s not that Bill wasn’t interested in doing it. I think that his interests were very much in the journalism part of it. You’re also a corporate officer. You’re also involved in strategic planning. You’re also involved in deep connections to the newsrooms at stations.”
Kernis said the job also required shaping the network’s Newsroom of the Future initiative, which stems from its New Realities strategizing and aims to rebuild its news operations to serve new-media platforms as effectively as the broadcast wing.
Marimow was not the search committee’s choice for the job earlier this year, according to several accounts. Kevin Klose, then NPR’s president and c.e.o.—and a longtime newspaper journalist like Marimow—overruled the committee and tapped Marimow.
Klose stepped back from the chief executive’s responsibilities last month when Ken Stern, formerly executive v.p., stepped up to c.e.o. The news shakeup is the first change in management under Stern’s direction.
NPR named National Desk Editor Ellen Weiss acting v.p. of news. The network has hired Sucherman Consulting Group, a national search firm that has worked for many major media companies, to find a permanent successor.
Marimow declined to comment for this article. In a memo shared with stations, he thanked NPR staff for an education in radio that was “a revelation and an inspiration” and said he was looking forward to serving as ombudsman.
The ombudsman appointment raised questions about whether the post has become a “dumping ground,” in the words of several news staffers. His predecessor as ombudsman, Dvorkin, likewise took the assignment, then newly created, after getting a mixed report card as news veep.
Dvorkin, who left NPR in July to become executive director of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, went on to become a highly visible ombudsman and even served as president of the international Organization of News Ombudsmen.
Dvorkin said he expects Marimow to handle the job well, but said, “The job of ombudsman should be seen as more than just a place where people who have not exactly triumphed in management are put.”
“I think the job is much more valuable than that,” he added. “ . . . It sends out a particularly bad vibe about how management sees the role of the ombudsman.”
Kernis disagreed that NPR undervalues the position. “Given Bill’s experience and accomplishments in journalism, I think it’s a false criticism,” he said. “Jeffrey was excellent in the job for six years. I have every reason to believe that Bill’s going to be great.”
In other staffing changes, NPR appointed Barbara Rehm, formerly managing editor, as acting senior managing editor for news coverage. Richard Harris—not NPR’s science reporter of the same name, but formerly a senior producer of Nightline and This Week at ABC—is joining the network as a managing editor in charge of shows and newscasts, a new position. Harris formerly worked at All Things Considered, where he advanced from production assistant to e.p. over eight years.
NPR also named J.J. Sutherland acting managing editor for digital media and Peggy Girshman managing editor of the Newsroom of the Future project. Girshman was previously assistant managing editor.
Web page posted April 9, 2007
Copyright 2007 by Current Publishing Committee