Here’s an understatement: It’s been a wild ride at Philadelphia’s daily newspapers. In April, The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Daily News were sold, after ratcheting concern over the political influence of the buyers. In May, the Inquirer’s chief executive stepped down.
And somewhere in between, former Inquirer editor Bill Marimow was rehired to helm the paper. Marimow had been demoted to the city desk in 2010 before leaving Philly to helm Arizona State’s Carnegie-Knight News21 digital journalism program last summer.
Now he’s back. Not many ousted editors get a second go-round. We caught up with Marimow (a former Nieman Fellow, Class of ’83) to find out how things are going, and what he’ll do differently this time. Here’s our conversation, lightly edited and condensed.
Adrienne LaFrance: I’m curious how your first day back compared with your last day with the Inquirer before.
Well, my last day was July 22, 2011. And I left the Inquirer as a reporter, general assignment on the city desk. My first day back was late April, and I came back as the editor-in-chief for the second time. To be honest with you, the experience is as invigorating as it is improbable.
I’ll tell you a funny story: This morning, we just got news of the Society of Professional Journalism awards that the Inquirer won for coverage last year. As I’m looking down this list, which was very impressive, I discover the following: Ongoing news coverage, first place: five Inquirer reporters, including me! It was for coverage of the Philadelphia school district. It’s quite a transformation for me, personally.
LaFrance: It wasn’t all that long that you were away, but the paper went through some major changes in that period.
Marimow: Well, for one thing it’s a smaller staff. I don’t know the precise number of people we had when I left, but the newsroom is now significantly smaller. Still talented, energized, and ambitious, but definitely smaller. It’s probably one of the realities of news economics right now, particularly in the print world. But it still makes it difficult to fulfill the mandate in terms of breadth coverage.
“At this point, we’re making discernible progress but the distance we have to go is greater than the distance we’ve come.”
LaFrance: How’s morale?
I think to find that out you’d have to talk to people on the staff other than I. As the editor, I see things, I believe, objectively. We just moved from our ancestral home
on North Broad Street in Philadelphia to Center City. I think that has been a real boost in morale for the staff, because the new newsroom glistens. It’s just the right size. In contrast to our old newsroom, where you had the features departments and several other groups on the mezzanine floor, everyone is now on the same floor. So it makes for a lot more collegiality.
LaFrance: You’ve said
that being away from the Inquirer helped you realize the importance of a multi-platform approach. What specifically are your plans in this regard?
Everyone knows that in this era we have to be excellent in every aspect of multimedia. So we’ve got to produce a good paper for traditionalists, people who want to have something that’s portable that they can carry around. We want to have great, quality information on our website, philly.com
. We want to have great apps. We want to have a great replica product. We need to be excellent on the iPhone. Anywhere that you can get news and content, we need to be doing stellar work. At this point, we’re making discernible progress, but the distance we have to go is greater than the distance we’ve come. I’ll give you one example: Last year, the Inquirer’s iPad edition was named
one of the best new apps of 2011 by Advertising Age. It hasn’t been highly publicized yet because under the old ownership they were really emphasizing Android. But it’s really impressive.
LaFrance: On the long list of areas where you want to achieve excellence, what are you tackling first? What are the specific steps you’ll take?
Marimow: We need to really develop a strategy for Philly.com. If you look at it now, it’s a hybrid website. It consists of content from the Inquirer, from the Daily News, and from other sources. It’s my feeling that the company has to have a unified, coherent strategy that will embrace the Inquirer’s values and standards on one hand, the Daily News’ values and standards on the other hand, and then all of the other components that make up Philly.com. I can express my opinion on this, but ultimately that has to be a decision for the publisher and the ownership. My opinion is that there needs to be a website that really is exclusively the province of the Inquirer, that people who want Inquirer content and Inquirer judgment have a place where they can go.
There was an article published the other week
that proposed what the author characterized as a radical idea: to have the Inquirer move to digital-only, while keeping the Daily News in print. I wonder if you’ve seen that piece and what your reaction to it was.
Marimow: I did see that. Earlier I said we need to be excellent in every shape and form. Well, if the Inquirer were to go digital-only, it would deprive a whole generation of older readers. For instance, my mother is 89-and-a-half years old. She lives in Northeast Philadelphia and reads the Inquirer every day. She doesn’t own a computer. Her knowledge of computers, I would say, is minuscule. If there were no Inquirer in print, she would have to buy a computer, and at the age of almost 90, master new technology, or go to the Daily News, or stop reading. To me, that would be a big mistake. I’m a big advocate of making sure that everyone who values our content can get it in whatever format they want it, and that includes print.
LaFrance: Of course there’s that generation of usually older readers who only use print. But if there were some magic-wand way to give them all computers and technological literacy, would there be any other argument to keep print, other than affection for the medium?
The argument would be: If every single Inquirer reader wanted something other than print, you could argue there should be no print. But in my opinion, there are a lot of people who may read the Inquirer or another paper online as a matter of convenience as opposed to a matter of preference
. If their preference is print, then I think we should give them print, at least until an overwhelming number of our audience is totally converted.
LaFrance: What’s something that, now that you’re back in this position, you feel like you’re able to have another crack at?
Number one, unifying a strategy for the web. Number two, trying to find a way to make the Inquirer accessible on every single kind of platform, pulling together a universal app that we could use on a five-inch device like Samsung’s
, a three-and-a-half-inch device like the iPhone, a seven-inch device like the Kindle Fire or Google Nexus, or the Motorola tablet. I’m not technically proficient, but I really believe that to be successful in this generation we need to be accessible, available, and excellent on every device.
LaFrance: What’s something that you’d like to redo but realistically realize you can’t — something where you can acknowledge, “That ship has sailed.”
Marimow: I’m someone who looks forward. To me, what we really need to do is take the traditional skills of journalism — reporting and writing, the mastery of the beat, development of sources, how to use public records, interviewing techniques, the detection of a pattern — taking the traditional tools and adapting them to the multimedia world. Use those tools not only to do the great story in print or on the web but also do an accompanying video, an interview on television, on radio, whatever is required.
LaFrance: Looking more broadly, I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the future of two-newspaper towns — generally, but then specifically in Philadelphia.
Marimow: The Daily News and the Inquirer are distinctly different. The Daily News is irreverent. It’s saucy. It’s fun. It covers the city intensively. It’s got a great sports section. It covers crime and urban affairs extremely well. The Inquirer’s a lot more serious. That’s not intended to be pejorative toward the Daily News. It’s more authoritative. It does more comprehensive work in South Jersey and the Philadelphia suburbs, more in-depth coverage of business and medical science. There’s room for two newspapers in town, but there has to be a real distinction between the two.
LaFrance: You talked about having a distinct web presence, but how else do you want to distinguish the brands?
Marimow: Sixty percent of our readers are in the suburbs, and I think we have to do a much better job of covering the suburbs. Twenty percent are in South Jersey — we have to do a much better job of covering South Jersey. We need to cover those communities in greater depth than we have the resources to do now.
LaFrance: So how do you plan to do that without the resources?
Marimow: This is all a matter of news organization economics. There are only two ways to increase profitability: One is decreasing costs and the other is increasing revenue. The owners that hired me in November 2006 paid well over $500 million for this company. They incurred an enormous debt — I believe it was over $300 million. The current owners purchased the company for $55 million, and they have no debt. So they have an opportunity to both strive for increasing revenues and also tightening their belt economically. If we’re successful in restoring the company to profitability, the more possibilities there are for increasing the newsroom coverage both in terms of space in the paper and staffing.
LaFrance: In terms of the more recent staff cuts, the number I saw was 37, either through buyouts or involuntary cuts. Is that accurate?
Marimow: To be honest with you, this happened before I returned to the fray. I don’t have the precise figures. Honestly, I don’t know.
LaFrance: What kinds of staff cuts are expected?
Marimow: No cuts to the newsroom that I know of. Believe me: I am going to do everything I can to expand the staff, not reduce the staff.
I notice you’re on Twitter but you don’t do a lot of tweeting — you at least need an avatar! You’re still an egg.
Marimow: I know, I know! When I was at Arizona State teaching last year, I began to tweet a little bit. When I came back, I found myself wanting to tweet and promote the best work, and tweet about journalistic issues. But I found that my discipline for tweeting was superseded by the necessity for me to communicate with my staff.
LaFrance: You know you can communicate on Twitter, right?
Marimow: I know that, but then I’m communicating with the world. Having been back for just three or four months now, what I’m hoping we can do is really inspire and work with the staff. My outside-world communications have been limited. This conversation is one of them.