A Bad “Fit”  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  The Beat
From AJR,   February/March 2004

A Bad “Fit”   

After the surprise firing of Baltimore Sun Editor Bill Marimow, his staff and colleagues are left wondering why, yet hold out hope for the Sun publisher's choice, Tim Franklin.

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

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A few years ago William K. Marimow, then editor of the Baltimore Sun, filled out one of those interesting-facts-about-me surveys for the American Society of Newspaper Editors' magazine, The American Editor.

After the Sun's publisher fired him in January, ostensibly over a personality conflict, Marimow's old survey answers, reread, glow with a bit of prescience. Like:

The worst part of the job: The endless stream of administrative detail.

Behind my back, employees say: "Stubborn to a fault."

Tips on leadership: Trust your instincts. Fight to the finish on matters of bedrock principle.

Those who know Bill Marimow say all of those things are true. He's a journalist at heart rather than an administrator. He's stubborn. And he'll fight hard for newsroom interests. All traits that could have led to his undoing at the Sun.

Publisher Denise Palmer abruptly announced in an e-mail to Sun staff on January 6 that she was replacing Marimow, 56, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, with Tim Franklin, the well-regarded 43-year-old editor of the Orlando Sentinel and a longtime Tribune Co. man. Franklin, she said, would take over that day.

Palmer, whom the Sun quoted as saying, "It is about personality, fit, style," not about Marimow's journalism, told AJR that she wasn't going to elaborate. "I'm not going to get into Bill didn't do this, Bill didn't do that.... It was the interaction that we had and not being able to make that interaction" work.

Two weeks after Marimow's firing, his colleagues were still perplexed by Palmer's seemingly simplistic explanation for firing an editor regarded as among the industry's best. They surmise that there was more to it, that the cause was an aggregate of things, a perception possibly building at corporate that another man in the editor's seat would be easier to work with.

Michael Waller, publisher of the Sun before Palmer, calls Marimow the most responsive editor he's ever worked with, even when it came to cutting costs and the more distasteful aspects of the business. Waller, now retired and living in South Carolina, says he knew that Marimow and Palmer weren't going to get along, she a longtime manager but a newspaper novice, perhaps uncomfortable in her new role, and Marimow, who Waller says, "isn't Mr. Gregarious."

"I didn't think they'd make it a year," says Waller, who doesn't blame Palmer for wanting an editor she knows and trusts. What he takes issue with is how she essentially blindsided Marimow. "It wasn't handled gracefully, where all the parties can have their dignity," he says. "What it does is send shivers through other people. Makes other people think, 'I wonder if I'm clicking?' "

The surprise dismissal shocked and disturbed journalists, not only at the Sun. Jim Keat, a longtime Sun newsman, now retired, says, "The way it happened has to be the most disheartening part of the whole thing.... For a company that prides itself on good management, this was a disgraceful way to handle it."

Colleagues of Marimow say there was no open hostility between the editor and the publisher. However, in the year or so the two worked together, they apparently didn't see eye to eye on some crucial things, one being the best way to handle last year's divisive union contract negotiations, the other being how to improve the paper's profit margins--Marimow objected to layoffs, preferring to scale back staff through attrition and hiring freezes. Marimow declined to comment for this story, saying he'd rather "look forward, not backward."

In public Marimow aligned himself with management during the contract talks that teetered on the verge of a strike. But those who know him say that behind closed doors, his anti-strike attitude might have irked managers willing to let it come to that.

"He was just doing what he considered his duty, and I would agree that any editor's duty is to point out things they think might harm the paper," says Gene Roberts, former executive editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer who worked with Marimow there in the '70s. "Bill's style is to fight from within."

Sun reporter Bill Salganik, who is the Guild president, says if Marimow butted heads with corporate, over the contract negotiations or anything else, the newsroom wasn't privy to it. "At a time when some of the management was quite aggressive--even threatening--he tried to maintain good relations with both sides," Salganik says of the near-strike. "However this tension [with corporate] might have played out, we didn't see it."

Roberts says that is Marimow's style. "When meeting with management he said what he thought," he says. "The rest of the time he kept his counsel."

But, says Roberts, even that is too much dissent anymore for corporate. "They expect shut up and salute," he says. "We'd like to think Tribune Co. was a bit more enlightened than that."

Palmer says Tribune was not involved. "This does not have anything to do with Tribune. This is my decision and my decision only."

In the days after Marimow's firing, a New York Times story quoted an editor at the Chicago Tribune as saying that Tribune wanted its family papers to share more resources, including stories, and that Marimow balked at this. John S. Carroll, editor of the Los Angeles Times, another Tribune paper, says he didn't know of any critical tugs of war between Marimow and corporate. "I was unaware of anything that led me to believe he'd be fired," Carroll says. "He was willing to stand up for the things he considered important, but he was always a gentleman. It was never acrimonious."

Before L.A., Carroll led the Baltimore Sun, and Marimow was his hand-selected managing editor. The two worked together in Philly, too. "He had extremely high integrity and personal decency," Carroll says, "what you might simply call character."

Kate Shatzkin, a Sun reporter Marimow hired years ago at the Inky as a stringer, was in mourning after his dismissal. His reporting "gave the newsroom something to aspire to," she says. "It put a hero among us--though he'd probably kill me for saying that."

About the time on January 6 when the Baltimore staff was reading Palmer's changing-of-the-guard e-mail, Tim Franklin was saying goodbye to his Orlando newsroom. From there he boarded a plane, arriving in Baltimore to greet the shell-shocked newsroom late that afternoon.

Franklin led the Tribune-owned Sentinel for three years after a stint at the head of the Indianapolis Star. He spent the bulk of his career working his way up the ranks of the Tribune Co. mother ship, the Chicago Tribune. Though his arrival in Baltimore casts on him, almost by default, a sense that he's a corporate toady, there to do whatever dirty work that Marimow refused, his record and reputation dispute that.

Those familiar with his work describe a tough-minded and ambitious journalist, one who relishes the type of reporting that wins prizes. "Tim is a journalist's journalist," says Sentinel Managing Editor Elaine Kramer.

Franklin says he wants to step firmly into his new role but without trampling on the still-raw emotions in the newsroom, and he wants Baltimore to understand that he's not there to cheapen the paper.

"I understand their skepticism about me and about the change," he says. "I just want to reassure them that I came here because I think this could be a better paper. I'm not some functionary sent here to dismantle a great newspaper....

"I'm not a budget-cutting hack that's been brought here--and this move isn't a retreat from quality journalism. I have been a journalist and I came here for the challenge of taking a great paper" even further.

Sun staffers are encouraged by what they've seen and heard from Franklin. "He's making all the right moves at this point," says Business Editor Larry Williams. But after Marimow's firing, some worry that good journalism and the ideals he embraced are no longer the company's priority.

"What does this mean for those ideals?" Shatzkin asks. "Maybe those stay with Tim Franklin. We hope so."

(Editorial assistant Judson Berger contributed to this story.)

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