Comfortable Fit?  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  The Beat
From AJR,   August/September 2003

Comfortable Fit?   

Though the Philadelphia Inquirer has had its share of recent issues, some hope that new editor Amanda Bennett will get things back on track.

By Jill Rosen
Jill Rosen is AJR's assistant managing editor     


If you heard an exhale of relief coming from the Philadelphia region recently, it may be due to the appointment of Amanda Bennett as the Inquirer's new editor, or, it could just be the sound of a newsroom wriggling free of its girdle.

It's fair to say that the Inquirer of late has unhappily worn something girdle-esque, something uncomfortable and constraining. That constraint took the form of Knight Ridder budget cuts, the departure of a beloved editor, the arrival of a new editor charged with severely reconfiguring the newsroom. Morale sagged as the Philadelphia Inquirer became a national example of the once great.

But when Editor Walker Lundy walked away from the Inquirer in May after just 18 months, months mostly filled with painful changes to prepare the paper to better cover its suburban territory, in stepped Bennett, 51, picked from Knight Ridder's Lexington Herald-Leader, which she'd led for not quite two years. Her sturdy journalism roots impressed even the skeptical staff, particularly the Pulitzers she helped garner, first as a reporter at the Wall Street Journal, later leading a team of reporters at Portland's Oregonian.

In her fashion, which balances a levelheaded directness with relaxed humor, she told the staff in her first meeting "not to expect miracles." But she also sent a clear message that big journalism was coming back to town, if she had any say in the matter. Yeah, there were still going to be financial situations, but the news game was her priority.

"I'm the No. 1 journalist, don't make me the publisher," she says. "Otherwise the conversation is constrained to, 'Can you get me more resources?' I want to make the newsroom kick--let me be that."

She says she told the newsroom, "Take off the girdle, let yourself free, don't be afraid to do your best work." And though they aren't quite ready to fling all doubts out the window, some staffers like what they're hearing.

"It was important for me to hear an editor say journalism is a priority in an age when it's a matter of what you want to stand up and fight for in a newsroom," says reporter Thomas Ginsberg. "Amanda Bennett has the kind of personality a lot of people want this paper to have--she's interested and serious, she has a great sense of humor and she's genuinely open to people."

Metro columnist Tom Ferrick was heartened by Bennett's "good journalism bona fides." He says that Lundy, never popular, handled necessary dirty work, setting the paper up to conquer the 'burbs, dispatching 40 new hands and moving people from other parts of the newsroom to do it. "Amanda now gets to work with that machinery--and she gets to do it without the baggage Walker accumulated."

An early Bennett goal, perhaps that closest to her journalistic heart, is to revive the paper's investigative arm. "I want to push for the moon," she says. "I want to know what's the most ambitious thing we can do--and how can we do it."

Her approach is "I can't make it perfect, but we can make it better." And one small way she hopes to make it better, is to release that girdle.

On her first day in June, as she traversed the long newsroom to her door, something hanging at her office caught her eye, "this big, fat girdle." Best of all, the message along with it: "Welcome to the Inquirer," someone had written, "now a girdle-free zone."

###