Each morning, often before I even crawl out of bed, I open Twitter on my iPhone and see what’s happened while I was asleep.
That’s how I learned Bill Marimow was out as The Philadelphia Inquirer’s editor.
I try to tell as many journalists as I can to love the journalism, not the medium. Love the mission, not the medium. I say this at work so much that I must sound like a broken record.
I even say it at home and 4-year-old Zakki has no clue as to what the heck I am talking about. (Though the little dude does point out he wears an extra-small, not a medium.)
This basic premise behind why I constantly talk about the difference between dedication to medium and a dedication to journalism is what makes what happened in Philly with Marimow so interesting.
I get the difference between perception and reality. Hell, I live it.
The reality is that this man is a world-class journalist. That isn’t up for debate or question. The perception — whether real or not — is that he didn’t know what it means to be journalist when ink and paper and presses are taken out of the equation.
I only met Bill Marimow a few times. I don’t know what it was like to work with him or what his vision for informing folks in a multiplatform world was. I liked him and had (and still have) a tremendous amount of respect for him.
Maybe that’s why it all made me a little sad.
Respect and reality
In my mind, Bill Marimow has earned and deserves respect. Being an elder statesmen for the newspaper world doesn’t automatically make you irrelevant in this industry … though, it ain’t exactly going to calm down your newspaper’s new corporate owners.
One of the most forward-thinking and open-minded journalists I’ve ever met is Bill Snead, and Snead is no spring chicken.
In case you don’t know who Bill Snead is, he’s held important roles at newspapers across the country, UPI, National Geographic and The Washington Post. He means a ton to me on about a thousand levels. He’s also probably the most active 146-year-old you’ve ever met.
(Because Bill Snead knows I love him so much, he probably isn’t going to be too mad at me for adding 10-12 years to his actual age to help make a point in this blog post.)
Snead is fearless about trying new things, and the lessons he has taught me regarding the role of an editor years ago seem even more appropriate and relevant to me now than when he actually still was the editor of the Lawrence Journal-World.
Three or four years ago, I got to visit The Philadelphia Inquirer for an entire day. Getting to talk with Marimow while I was there felt a little like going to Dagobah to learn about the Force from Yoda.
I knew I was in the company of greatness and asked him tons of questions as fast as I could, just in case I quickly needed to jump in my X-wing fighter to unexpectedly help my friends. Or maybe make a train back to D.C. Or maybe take an important call from my wife. Or something like that.
On that day in Philadelphia, I sensed he honestly cared about the future of The Inquirer (regardless of how it was delivered), and that he didn’t think whatever he did in the print edition automatically was what should be on the newspaper’s website. He trusted the organization’s web editors to know what should be done to best serve the newspaper’s online audience.
I’ve said this a lot over the last three or four years, but some of the most close-minded journalists I’ve ever met are recent J-School graduates.
Don’t let the youthful faces and iPhones fool you.
If you’re a newspaper editor, it’s been my experience that you’ll have better luck getting your newsroom’s 43-year-old political beat writer to blog or tweet about a candidate rally or have that veteran journalist post breaking news shortly after it happens than you will getting the same thing accomplished with the recent J-School grad with the pierced nose and the preprogrammed, misguided sense of elitism.
In my very limited time with Marimow, I never felt like he was close-minded. In some ways he actually seemed more perceptive than many of the 20-something newspaper journalists I meet in regard to what a news organization’s digital mission should be. It also felt like he had an honest grasp of what skills and vision he didn’t have when it came to web publishing.
Though I clearly don’t know the circumstances surrounding Marimow’s exit from The Philadelphia Inquirer newsroom’s glass office (other than it kind of makes me sad that he’s not going to be sitting behind that desk anymore), I also completely understand how things like pushing an old-school print editor out in the name of the digital future happens.
Sometimes, it’s absolutely appropriate. As an editor I respect very much told me this past weekend, oftentimes it doesn’t happen enough in the newspaper industry.
I get all of that. I really do.
I’ve read lots of blogs explaining how Marimow’s move from editor back to reporter signifies the beginning of a new (and, many argue, needed) trend in newspapers: the transition of newsrooms’ death-grip focus on print to the immediacy-based world of the web and mobile.
The problems with some ‘traditional’ editors and newspaper websites
I have seen (and met) way too many newspaper editors who don’t understand — and in some cases, seemingly don’t even want to understand — what it is like to try to inform our audience in today’s multi-device world where few families begin their day at the kitchen table, eating breakfast together while Mom and Dad read the local newspaper.
It feels like too many newspaper editors don’t realize the narrative in most people’s lives now has changed so much that the morning paper exists in a much different place for most people than it did a generation ago (or even a decade ago). This is important to note because when these types of editors take over the newspaper’s digital operation (which many seem to lust to gain control of), the damage they do is overwhelming and possibly even insurmountable.
And under the leadership of these types of editors, it becomes painfully clear why so many local newspaper websites not only seem out of place within the Internet’s ecosystem, but also why their newspaper sites routinely get their asses handed to them by new local sites like espnchicago.com, not to mention national players such as the Huffington Post, Politico or the Daily Beast.
I have a few friends and acquaintances at The Inquirer. Those folks emphasized to me Marimow never was one of those print-raised editors who tried to wrestle away the newspaper’s online operation and then completely screw it. I’m told that if he did make any errors related to Philly.com, they were errors “of omission, not commission.”
Another journalist friend of mine who lives in Philadelphia — and who definitely pays attention to the Inquirer, but doesn’t work there — told me there hasn’t been much in the way of disagreement among those who typically can be disagreeable about almost everything in regard to Marimow’s role in helping to stabilize and rededicate that newspaper’s journalism.
Without going into a bunch of other details, it seems there were all sorts of things going on within the inner workings of The Inquirer that would make it hard for even the webbiest of print editors to help produce the newspaper (and local news website) of the future.
It’s this relative sorry state of most traditional newspaper sites that makes things like tbd.com, civilbeat.com and baycitizen.org (and even some of the Patch sites) so damn interesting to me right now.
TBD, Civil Beat and the Bay Citizen are flat-out, ass-kicking good — each for different reasons. And it seems to me that TBD could have added four more letters to its name and actually outlined what seems to be its unofficial mission: To Be Damn Relevant To Our Audience. Dot-com.
A friend of mine who is the editor of a very fine local news site has pointed out that if the folks behind TBD did want to do that, tbdrtoa.com is still available.
Though tbd.com is clearly catchier. And shorter.
The point is, I absolutely know how things like what happened to Bill Marimow can occur. Corporations that for some reason now own a local newspaper will talk to all sorts of pundits and analysts, then see very cool sites with a clear digital focus like tbd.com and then easily decide that they want “one of those.”
An extension of that kind of thinking can then lead to the idea that an old-school print editor can’t take them there.
I personally have no idea whether removing Marimow from the editor’s office was warranted or not. It very well may have been. The undeniable fact is it’s simply a much different media world than it was when he first joined the Inquirer newsroom practically before I was even born.
Thriving through all of that change, let alone just adapting to it — even when you’re Yoda — might not just be tough, but impossible.
Understanding the past to better anticipate the future
When I was just a puppy working for Morris Communications more than a decade ago and our organization’s local news websites had just completed this remarkable, multi-year string of national and international awards and accolades, one of our company’s leaders equated it as the web-news-nerd version of that amazing string of Pulitzers won by the Philadelphia Inquirer in the late 1970s and 1980s, including the two won by Bill Marimow.
Then there were the multiple Pulitzers he had his hand in while he was the editor of The Baltimore Sun.
As you can tell, I am a bit of a Marimow fan.
I’m also a huge fan of The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Back when I was still a cub reporter at The Topeka Capital-Journal, it was the Inquirer’s over-the-top amazing and creative-as-hell-for-that-era website for its Blackhawk Down series that convinced me to jump in to online journalism with both feet. I remember the first time I dug into that old site back in the ’90s. After obsessively going through every page and storytelling element, I felt like I had just seen full-color journalism for the first time after previously loving it with all of my heart in black-and-white.
(Wanna know just how influential the web elements of the Blackhawk Down sitelet were on me? First, look at all of the different things done in the left rail of this 1997 project page that helped Inquirer reporter Mark Bowden tell his story in such a unique manner and made much of the reporting behind it transparent to the audience. Then look at this 2010 multimedia-intensive, uber-deep investigation into our area’s hospitals from Las Vegas Sun health reporter extraordinaire Marshall Allen. Amazing how many of the core online elements are the same, huh?)
That’s what makes this interesting for me.
Marimow is someone whose journalism motivated me to work hard so that I would suck less in the profession I’ve wanted to be a part of since I was a snot-nosed third-grader. Then layer in that he was working at the very newspaper that inspired me to practice the journalism I love in a medium that doesn’t include ink on deadwood.
What if we’re focusing on one problem when many things are broken?
This has taken some time for me to digest. I even published a version of this blog entry for a few hours on Sunday, then “unpublished” it so I could think about it some more.
Now I understand why this has bothered me and why I can’t bring myself to do the “boy am I glad that an old school print editor got canned in the name of the digital future” dance.
It’s because I know how the daily news is produced at the Las Vegas Sun.
We’re far from having this figured out, but as our publisher Brian Greenspun has said many times, it feels like we’re closer to right than we are to wrong.
Similar to other local news operations, the Sun’s newsroom is broken into basically two groups. But unlike a whole lot of newspapers, those two groups aren’t “print” and “online.” Instead, they are “breaking” and “enterprise.” And there is a ton of overlap between those two groups.
(Yes, old habits die hard. Our newsroom just got out of a lunch meeting where our two groups of reporters were continually referred to as “print” and “online,” not “breaking” and “enterprise.” Still, the realization of what we really stand for is there, even we use the wrong words to describe it. Sorry, as I digest …)
The lead story in this morning’s Sun print edition was written by one of our “breaking news” reporters. Heck, three out of the last four days’ front pages of the ink-and-paper Sun had key stories written by the folks formerly known as the “online kids.” (Though I’m not going to lie, it still totally pisses me off when folks in our newsroom call them that.)
Each day we publish close to 45 local stories on LasVegasSun.com that never appear in our print edition, and many of those come from reporters on the “enterprise” team.
Some of the Sun’s editors understand analytical and investigative journalism, while another group of editors get immediacy, multimedia, mobile and databases. There’s cooperation. Everyone works together — which obviously is crucial — but each also understands what his/her medium brings to the table in regard to serving our audience in this multiplatform world.
With our unique JOA, I know the Sun doesn’t publish in the real world.
But maybe this should be the real world.
Just because our print edition doesn’t have big car ads or a shrinking classified section doesn’t mean that the editorial strategy guiding the Sun’s broadsheet pages couldn’t be exported to other daily newspapers.
This isn’t a “we are in a JOA” strategy. It might be a “what is the real role and strength of a morning print edition in a world where people already know things almost instantaneously” strategy.
The morning Las Vegas Sun newspaper that lands on your driveway doesn’t give you the stories you basically already knew before you went to bed last night. It tells you what those stories mean.
LasVegasSun.com focuses on local breaking news and other niches that are specific to our community’s interests. The Sun’s website probably is why you know all of those things before you went to sleep last night.
The first three letters in the word “newspaper” spell “new,” yet it doesn’t feel like many print editions focus on what is new. They still focus primarily on what happened yesterday. The Las Vegas Sun focuses on things we hope are new to our readers because we feel that in today’s information-overkill universe, you already know what happened yesterday.
We try to tell to our readers how yesterday’s news might affect them. Or we try to tell them something we’ve been working on for weeks, or months or even years that they simply didn’t know … and really should.
When we first implemented the strategy that the Sun’s print edition would act a little like a daily Newsweek for Sin City and that our website would tell the day’s local news in real-time, it went over about like a pregnant pole vaulter with some of the folks in our newsroom. Some felt our website should basically be the digital archive for our print edition.
Now most of the Sun’s journalists understand that what we did was a massively complementary strategy that uses each medium to its strength. Our newsroom’s mission became about producing the right journalism for the right medium and serving our readers throughout the day in all sorts of different circumstances and on all sorts of different devices.
And in that sort of daily newspaper world, Bill Marimow still would be the editor of the enterprise functions of The Philadelphia Inquirer. Then there would be this other editor who understands the role information plays in new media and focuses on all of the things that make the Internet so damn powerful and disruptive.
But, here’s the kicker (possibly even the key): Those editors are equals. They work together.
And when they don’t work together, well then it’s time for whoever isn’t playing nice to either retire or go find his/her success someplace else … likely at a newspaper that isn’t trying very hard to make it to the next decade and stay relevant in a world where CNN is 30 years old, the Internet is no longer “new” media and you can surf the web faster on your cell phone than you could on your computer back in college.
I’m not saying that in 2010 newspapers need two editors.
There are editors with print backgrounds who really get the Internet. John Temple comes to mind. And there are online editors who can run print operations. Jeff Light at the San Diego Union-Tribune comes to mind. Even the new editor for Las Vegas Weekly, Sarah Feldberg, is the former online editor for that publication and now she runs the whole dang shooting match.
However, at least right now, those people seem to be the exception, not the rule. As I said about 1,900 paragraphs ago, I don’t know what it’s like to work with Marimow and I don’t know how webby he really is.
I do know that for a strategy like ours at the Sun to work, you better have an online editor who gets not only the web, but also has the ability to adapt as media-consumption habits continue to evolve. Equally important, you need an editor who understands the new role the print edition of a daily newspaper needs to play when most of your audience already knows the news of the day long before you even put that sucker on the presses last night … let alone the next morning when folks actually get the newspaper.
And it seems like that’s exactly the type of journalism Marimow embodied.
(Not that I have to point out something so obvious, but just because you have gray hair and still own a pica pole doesn’t mean you automatically know how to run an enterprise-based news operation. There is Hertz. And then there is Not Exactly. Marimow was Hertz. I’ve met a whole lot of Not Exactlys.)
Raising a toast and posting a tweet
I don’t drink alcohol, but later tonight I am going to pull out my finest two-liter bottle of Mountain Dew and raise a toast to Marimow and the great journalism he not only represented, but committed. Even if maybe he didn’t know how to practice journalism online or on a mobile phone or via Twitter.
And that’s why that tweet from last week made me a little sad.
The strange coincidence — or is it irony? — is that The Philadelphia Inquirer first publicly announced Marimow’s move from editor back to reporter via Twitter.
Maybe I’ll try to call Mr. Marimow later this week to ask him if I should have used “irony” or “coincidence” in that sentence above, because I’m guessing he’ll be able to tell me without even thinking.
Or maybe, if he has the time, we can just chat about journalism. Although he’s likely forgotten more about newspapering than I will ever know, my guess is that it’s the journalism he’s in love with, not the medium.
And if he ever needs my help with anything I might know how to do, I hope he’ll reach out to me.
Mr. Marimow probably doesn’t even know it, but the guy has taught me so much that I’d love to be able to pay back even just a little.
So, here’s my tweet …
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