Big Stakes in Philadelphia, Little Minds

Posted: December 12, 2013 in Contemporary Commentary

The big issue in the Philadelphia owners newspaper war is whether an appeals court might overturn a lower court decision to reinstate Bill Marimow as editor of the paper after he was fired by the publisher and owner George Norcross III.
But the little issues raised by Norcross through proxy blogger Ralph Cipriano is whether owner Lew Katz has been just as bad as Norcross. The columns lately have taken some desperate turns, grasping at such straws as a funeral director dropping Katz’s name to an obituary writer and the suggestion that a standing ovation for Marimow was the equivalent of a faked orgasm.
Those who do not agree with Ralph or question his fairness are considered liars or “blind” “or of the realm.” He is completely fair and actually harbors no grudges against The Inquirer, he says. That whole part about being fired and then suing the Inquirer for a $7 million settlement is just water over the bridge.
(In that, he is indeed a better man than I am. I bear grudges against editors who changed my ledes twenty years ago — and they improved them.)
At the same time, Ralph is such a force of nature, it is fascinating to see what he will come out with next, thinking it to be the sanctified saber of truth slashing down the philistines. His stories hardly even mention now that Norcross and clan fired the first shots in the war and that is what brings us back to Big Stakes.
Bill Marimow and the senior editors he was ordered to fire want to do serious journalism — the sort that brought forth the phrase “Fourth Estate.” That might make them Brahmins in the world of tech IPOs but in the world of newspapers it means they actually value what makes newspapers valuable. A paper must be a must-read. It must concentrate on the big stories for everyone in the region with a diligence, fairness, accuracy and aggression so that people must read it.
This is what Publisher Hall with his focus groups misses. Corporate folks have been asking focus groups for forty years what they want to read. A good editor like Marimow and friends know what they have to read. And therein is the difference between newspapers that live and newspapers than die.
Moreover, Marimow is not the anti-web Brahmin Hall and Norcross suggest he is. The boy went to Arizona to run a state-of-the-art digital web op and came back to the Inquirer with a newly discovered zeal for the digitari.
And by all looks, the new Inquirer.com website is pretty formidable. It’s just that it is very hard to get to and even harder to pay for. Unless someone has given you a special coupon you can’t.
You can’t really get to it because the business side of the web, run largely by the Norcross family, has perhaps the worst web strategy in the world. The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have built strong online paid sites through a clever strategy of augmented content, smart bloggers, and a free access that meters out quickly in a month.
They get the best of both worlds then. Good free readers — who are funneled into paid readers.
In Philadelphia, all Inquirer and Daily News copy can be had for free first on Philly.com and there is no end to the “freeness.” Come for awhile, stay forever. The only thing that might push you away is the trending stories bout Flipsy the Narcoleptic Squirrell or today’s cute kitten — commodity cute clicks designed to just bring in sheer bulk clicks.
The strategy builds nothing and in fact destroys credibility and the brand of the Inquirer. Conflicts over it led to Norcross moving to fire Marimow.
And there is the biggest sin of commission in this melodrama.
The Ralph stories paint a picture of Katz wielding a hand that is boosting his own stories, alongside a dragon lady city editor who punishes all who do not support Katz and will kill you if you don’t clap.
Meanwhile Bill Marimow, who is the most ethical, forthright and honest editor I know, presumably had decided to just take a fall and let his reporters get kicked around.
The problem is that these very unlikely situations are backed by very few real facts. The city editor is said by all to be a first rate newswoman. Marimow would not back down and allow al those things. Katz may be confused about when he should be in the newsroom if ever, but that sounds like confusion, not collusion. To the point there is, it should be eliminated. To the point where there is any confusion, editorial policy should be developed and made clear of course.
So how could these folks ever get to a truce?
Well, if they are interested in one, abandon the idea of firing top editors who can deliver compelling must read tories. Don’t send out more New Jersey reporters to cover chicken dinners. It’s been tried. It failed. Go for the big stories that people have to read.
Execute on the web strategy. Keep Philly.com free but put a monitor on it of five monthly stories produced by the Inquirer and Daily News. And then feed the subscribers to the upscale Inquirer and PhiladelphiaDailyNews.com
What the owners have in common is both want a decent name for themselves in the local history books.  Destroy in a great paper won’t do that.  Rebuilding it will.

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