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From AJR,   December 2001  issue

Not So Rosey in Philly   

Robert J. Rosenthal resigns as editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer after disagreeing with the publisher over how to reverse falling circulation; St. Paul Pioneer Press Editor Walker Lundy is hired to replace him.

By Kathryn S. Wenner
Kathryn S. Wenner, a former AJR associate editor, is a copy editor at the Washington Post.     

However complex the reasons behind the November 6 resignation of Robert J. Rosenthal as editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, one thing is clear: In the newsroom, he's going to be a tough act to follow.

"I'm just heartbroken," says reporter Nancy Phillips, who burst into tears at the news the man everyone calls Rosey was leaving after four years at the helm. "I think that sentiment is shared by a lot of people."

Even the executive who suggested to Rosenthal that it might be time for him to go, Publisher Robert Hall, emphasizes how much he respects Rosenthal, as a journalist and as a human being. They disagreed, however, about the direction of the Knight Ridder-owned paper, which has been losing circulation and endured two rounds of buyouts in the space of a year. In a memo to staff, Hall said he and Rosenthal had "been discussing his resignation for some time."

His predecessor, Maxwell King, calls Rosenthal, 53, "one of the smartest, most committed, most aggressive editors in the country," with "the right instinct about what the story is and about [how to use] people" in the newsroom.

His successor, Walker Lundy, 59, had the unenviable task of addressing the anxious and distraught troops just after Hall made the announcement, although word of Rosenthal's departure had leaked more than an hour earlier. By all accounts Lundy, editor of Knight Ridder's St. Paul Pioneer Press since 1990, won their initial support.

"I think he handled that meeting as well as it could have been handled," says Inquirer reporter Thomas Ginsberg, who wrote the resignation story for that day's Web edition and the next day's paper. "I got the impression that he put the room at ease in the first five minutes."

But Lundy, who officially took over on November 28, has far more to worry about than soothing a newsroom battered by staff reductions and the loss of two beloved leaders. (Managing Editor William "Butch" Ward took a buyout last summer. See "Bailing Out," October.)

Lundy inherits a newsroom that has lost 16 percent of its staff in the last year (according to management; the Newspaper Guild says 23 percent). The paper's circulation fell nearly 9 percent daily to 365,000 for the six months ending September 30 compared with the same period last year, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. How to reverse that trend, particularly in

Philadelphia's many diverse suburbs, was the question that led to Rosenthal's departure.

Rosenthal says he favored zoned editions that were like a "paper within a paper" and were supported by circulation efforts, marketing and advertising. "I wanted to maintain a balance of strong, daily suburban coverage with a strong bigger paper. The challenge was to do that with considerable staff reductions," Rosenthal says. Hall wanted to boost suburban coverage more quickly than Rosenthal, by diverting staff and other resources.

Lundy says he hasn't received any "marching orders" from Hall and will take two to three months before deciding what he thinks is the best strategy, though both men say it will involve content changes.

The conflict that led to Rosenthal's departure was apparent to the news staff. "There was clearly a tension between what Knight Ridder wanted to do and between what I think Rosey saw as his vision of the future," Phillips says. "Much like Gene Roberts, it's clear he decided to leave the paper he loved rather than compromise his ideals."

Roberts served as the Inquirer's editor for 18 years, building the paper into a franchise enormously respected for the quality of its journalism. It won 17 Pulitzer Prizes during his tenure. He left in 1990, unhappy over the direction he felt Knight Ridder was taking. Both Rosenthal and King developed under Roberts and shared his vision, which emphasized investigative reporting, ambitious series and coverage from bureaus around the country and overseas, none of which comes cheap. Now, for the first time in almost 30 years, the Inquirer's editor is not Roberts or one of his protégés.

"It may be premature to call it the end of an era," says King, who left the Inquirer in 1999 to become executive director of the Heinz Endowments, when there are "lots and lots of very talented journalists still there."

But Poynter Institute President James M. Naughton, who, as metro editor under Roberts, hired Rosenthal in 1979, says "there's no question" that the Roberts era is now over. "I don't mean this to the discredit of Walker Lundy," Naughton says, but "many of us have feared for some time that the corporate interest was in stamping out whatever traces of Gene Roberts remained. The wonder is that it took this long."

Hall disputes the notion that Knight Ridder executives forced Rosenthal out. He and Rosenthal "both thought it was best for him, the paper and me that he resign," he says. Lundy, whose former paper won a Pulitzer last year for its coverage of academic dishonesty in the University of Minnesota's basketball program (see "Body Slam," May 1999), says he certainly hopes the era of prize-winning journalism at the Inquirer isn't over. "At the same time," he says, "the best judge of the quality of a newspaper are its readers and not the Pulitzer judges."

Phillips says she was encouraged when Lundy said he values investigative reporting, which became one of the Inquirer's hallmarks under Roberts. "He made what I thought was a fine point," Phillips says. "He essentially said, 'Even if I were an idiot and Bob were an idiot, that should not prevent any reporter on this staff from going out and doing a great story.' "

Lundy showed his sensitivity to the staff's emotions, Ginsberg says, when he used the office next to Rosenthal's after the announcement and the following day to hold "getting to know you" sessions with editors and reporters.

Rosenthal, who stuck around until early afternoon the day he resigned, "had the most relieved look on his face," Ginsberg says. "I have not seen a man walk lighter on his feet. It seemed as if 300 pounds had been lifted from his shoulders."

After saying goodbye to a stream of sorrowful employees who filed into his office, Ginsberg says, Rosenthal "walked out, chatted with his secretary, gave her a hug, threw his suit jacket over his shoulder, and started walking out of the newsroom. He got about 10 feet and the applause began.

"This is a big newsroom. And the applause just crescendoed as he walked through the newsroom. And he raised his arms and said goodbye."