Monday, October 14, 2013

At The Inky They're Pining For Billy

By Ralph Cipriano
for Bigtrial.net

When I used to work at The Philadelphia Inquirer, a couple of reporters there had a routine that always made me laugh.

They were relatively new hires. Whenever they were around the  old-timers too long, and heard too many stories about Gene Roberts and the Golden Age of Journalism, they would hum a few bars of "Tara's Theme," from Gone With The Wind.

The Inky had a lot in common with the movie that lamented the lost Confederacy. Staffers at the city's paper of record were always reminiscing about the glory days under legendary editor Gene Roberts; now they're pining for the return of Bill Marimow.

Marimow is the Gene Roberts disciple who's done a couple stints as Inky editor. Last week, Inky Publisher Bob Hall fired Marimow for not being enough of a "change agent." That's funny because Hall's been the Inky publisher since I was there back in the 1990s. Two new owners of the paper, represented by Richard A. Sprague, a former Inky blood enemy, then filed suit in Common Pleas Court to bring Marimow back and fire Hall.

Meanwhile, former Inquirer heavyweights such as Steve Lopez, Mark Bowden and Maxwell King are leading a petition drive to bring back Billy. Cue Tara's Theme.

I used to work for Marimow. I like and respect him, but I won't be signing that petition.

Sadly, it doesn't matter who runs that paper. Maybe the Inky under a succession of new owners is just too cowed or ethically compromised. Or the staff that remains there is just too beaten down or just plain spent. Whatever, it's been obvious for a long time that the city's paper of record is not up to doing what's needed in this town.

I know from my own personal experiences. Even when the guy at at the top had the best intentions, the troops under him were too lame to deliver.

Especially that City Hall bureau.

A decade after an editor at the Inky showed me to the door, I ran into Bill Marimow on the street in 2009.

He looked exactly like I remembered. Same mustache, same button-down blue dress shirts with sleeves rolled up to the elbows. And in his conversation, the same repeated and enthusiastic use of the word "excellent."

Bill couldn't have been nicer. He invited me to lunch and asked me to send him some story ideas. My mistake was taking him seriously. So I sent him a detailed memo about DROP.

DROP is the pension perk at City Hall that pays workers hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash bonuses just for showing up during their last four years on the job. Taxpayers have already spent more than a billion dollars on this worthless program that does nothing more than line the pockets of already over-compensated municipal workers. A few City Council members really abused DROP by retiring for a day, banking their fat checks, and then going right back to work.

I sent Marimow a road map on how to do the story. He was enthusiastic, but soon, he was getting push back from his City Hall bureau. You know, those insiders who think and write like they're deputy mayors.

When the Inky story on DROP finally came out, it was the lamest piece of dog crap I've ever seen. It read like an incomplete book report. And it had zero effect.

I was so angry, I took the road map I sent Bill, and wrote the story for the Philadelphia City Paper in 2010. To my surprise, DROP became a crusade, and in the end, it took out more City Council members than Abscam.

The credit, however, doesn't belong to me, but to a former Inky editorial writer named Paul Davies. The normal posture at the Inquirer, was if they didn't write about it, it didn't happen. If Davies  hadn't gone against the grain and editorialized about my DROP story, and Kingsley Smith, the former news director at Fox 29, hadn't turned DROP into an evangelical crusade, nobody would have known or cared.

That's what an aroused press corps can do. Sadly, Davies and Smith are gone, and DROP is still with us.

Around the time of DROP, the Inky was on the auction block, and in and out of bankruptcy court. One of the Inky's many owners was the pension fund of the Carpenters Union. The Inky story back in 2006 announcing the sale of the paper said the Carpenters were "reportedly investing more than $20 million." Reportedly? The paper of record reporting on the sale of the paper of record, and they said "reportedly?"

But when the Inky filed for bankruptcy in 2009, public documents revealed the Carpenters' investment was more than twice that size. The Carpenters actually invested $47 million in the Inky and Daily News, $45 million of which came from the union pension fund. None of the rank and file at the Carpenters Union knew about it. When the paper went bankrupt, the Carpenters lost every cent.

It was all spelled out in public documents that had been lying around for 18 months. But the Inky wouldn't print it.

I wrote about the Carpenters' bad investments for the City Paper. In the course of reporting that story, I called an Inky reporter who had covered the sale of the paper. I asked him if he had seen those documents outlining the Carpenters' true investments and losses. Yep, he said he had the same documents I did. But he wouldn't tell me why it never ran, except to say that he wasn't as crazy as I was.

At the time, the Carpenters were part of a new group led by Brian Tierney that was trying to buy the papers back at auction. And the Carpenters were ready to blow another $10 million of pension money to keep the Inky and the Daily News.

I found it interesting that during the time the Carpenters owned our two dailies, virtually all public criticism ceased about a union that too often acts like a bunch of goons, and still maintains a tyrannical hold on the city's failing new Convention Center. Maybe the Carpenters did get something back on their investment.

Marimow got mad when I called to ask if the Inky was playing it straight with its coverage of the auction of the papers. "I take my reputation very seriously," Marimow told me. "The idea that I would try to tilt the local coverage to Brian Tierney is totally untrue."

I never found out whether the Inky's failure to print the Carpenters true investments and losses was the failure of the reporter, or the editors he worked for. But in the end, it didn't really matter. The result was the same, an uninformed public.

A couple of days after I called the Inquirer newsroom and raised a ruckus, the Inky finally ran a brief note on Dec. 26, 2010 about the Carpenters loss of $45 million in pension funds. It ran on page D-3 of the business section the day after Christmas. How's that for burying a story? It only took them 18 months.

Then I heard that former Philadelphia Newspapers LLC CEO Brian Tierney was getting a $300,000 golden parachute. Once again, it was laid out in public documents and the Inky wouldn't write about it. I only knew about it because people at the paper were calling me. So I wrote the story for City Paper, which printed it, despite repeated threats of a libel suit from Tierney.

Tierney's critics at the Inky then handed out the City Paper at Tierney's going away party.

By that time, I'd concluded too many people at the Inky were too concerned about self-preservation to stick their necks out. And too tied to the Democratic party to upend any apple carts.

We live in one of the most corrupt cities in North America. While we're going broke, our mayor has invented 31 new boards and commissions like the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy. We have a financial oversight board, PICA, that slaps a rubber stamp on the city's irresponsible budgets. At L&I, they let contractors license themselves and watch while buildings fall down and kill people. Our city pension fund is so broke we're all going to have to bail it out. When our district attorney isn't sending innocent men to jail, he's comparing a murder victim to his dead dog.

Meanwhile, the Inky is making sure that Vince Fumo doesn't throw another party at his mansion.

Seymour Hersh, the legendary reporter who uncovered the My Lai massacre, gave an interview to the Guardian recently. He had an interesting prescription for what ails American newspapers. He said most editors were too cowardly and timid, and that 90 percent of them should be fired. He talked about how the media needed to promote more people who were outsiders, and didn't give a damn about what you told them.

There's a reason why I'm a blogger.

Bill Marimow, however is the opposite of timid and cowardly, but sadly, those two words apply to the paper he edits. It's hard to figure, especially if you know and admire Marimow.

And so when the AVI story hit earlier this year, I found myself hoping against hope. Once again, I reached out to my old editor to try and goad the Inky into action.

AVI, or the Actual Value Initiative was a story that had people riled up all over town. Under AVI, people in Fairmount and South Philly were getting new assessments that showed an increase of 300 to 500 percent. In my case, my new AVI assessment was five times what I paid for my old rowhouse in a fringe neighborhood.

I started poking around with online property records, and noticed that while some people were getting clobbered by AVI, others in Chestnut Hill were getting tax breaks. I found three properties on St. Martin's Lane that sold for between $1 and $1.9 million. On Google Earth, those properties featured spectacular stone houses and majestic estates, with large shade trees and swimming pools. Under AVI, their assessments were only 40 to 60 percent of sale prices.

Meanwhile, the Inky City Hall bureau was showing its usual lack of curiosity about reporting anything that wasn't handed to them by the mayor's PR guys.

I sent Bill an email telling him what I knew. Then I took a few shots at his City Hall bureau.

"Bill, where do you find these guys who cover City Hall for you?" I wrote. "Their copy reads like it came out of the mayor's press office. Your AVI coverage is an embarassment. Are your guys on the take?"

As always, Bill was polite.

"Good morning Ralph," he replied. "If you would ever like to talk about his subject or any others in person like the former colleagues that we are, you're welcome to stop by. I've always tried to treat you fairly, and I'll continue to do so. Period."

"As to whether our reporters are 'on the take,' that -- as you well know -- is, to put it politely, untrue."

"All the best,

Bill."

8 comments:

  1. Good story. That City Hall bureau drives me nuts, too, but I don't entirely fault the bureau itself: it was always the structure of the Inky. A contingent of egotistical reporters and editors were vested in keeping the big investigative projects only to the i-team, and beat reporters were generally discouraged from doing such projects. "We have the i team, so just go do a daily on this press release," was the implicit message to the rank and file. The paper desperately needed, and still needs, to support and encourage reporters of every stripe across the newsroom, from interns to 40-year veterans, to Chester County suburbs to Philadelphia City Hall, to pursue tough investigations.

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  2. "Whenever they were around the old-timers too long, and heard too many stories about Gene Roberts and the Golden Age of Journalism, they would hum a few bars of 'Tara's Theme,' from 'Gone With The Wind.' " That's hilarious. Solomon/Inky class of '79-'81.

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  3. An excellent piece. Sadly, the trend at most newspapers is to largely go along with those in power, not speak truth to them. And it's worse with TV news, which is barely even news and will leave you knowing next-to-nothing about any important issue. As for what Hersch says about editors being timid, I'd say it's worse than that: The best editors are leaving the business like crazy because they aren't valued. Reporters are charged with coming up with buzzy blog posts and sending them straight to the web. They don't need editing because they are empty calories, mindless ruminations on something that usually was stupid to begin with. Very few outlets even pursue ambitious journalism because the journalists are told it doesn't get clicks. Clicks matter more than moving a community forward, and the communities really aren't doing anything to demand better, they just complain about the media. It's pretty much all over but the shoutin' in terms of the media serving intelligent Americans, the ones too busy working to click on mindless drivel all day.

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  4. I covered the Inquirer's sales to McClatchy and Tierney before I left to work for Bloomberg. Coryell's role as the largest investor in the Tierney purchase was reported by The Inquirer, for example by Larry Eichel and myself here: http://articles.philly.com/2006-05-29/news/25399978_1_philadelphia-media-holdings-llc-local-bid-million-in-pension-liabilities; after returning (like Bill Marimow) to the paper later, I pulled data from newly-public federal documents and reported the Carpenters' investment on the pension fund after the bankruptcy, first online: http://articles.philly.com/2010-12-26/business/26356713_1_carpenters-pension-carpenters-fund-retirees and then in my Sunday column here: http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/inq-phillydeals/Carpenters_trim_pension_as_.html . Ralph is right that DROP is expensive and its use by city council members and double-dippers outrages many voters. He doesn't seem to realize that the city pension system has much larger problems -- 40+ years of overpromising and underfunding, poor and high-fee investments, a surplus of retired payees to active contributors -- which I and others have written about at some length in the Inquirer. The small City Hall bureau (like the Harrisburg bureau) has done a credible job triaging many big stories. Since Knight-Ridder killed itself in the mid-2000s, the Inquirer has done a steady and credible job covering its own multiple sales and actual and would-be owners. No other media in Philadelphia covers itself at all, so far as I have seen. -- The Inquirer's reporting on Philadelphia schools and other city services and state issues continues to have an impact, as the Pulitzer board recognized when it awarded the Public Service medal for school violence reporting two years back, and Bill deserves credit for preserving and supporting that kind of enterprise. I'm sorry to say that's more than the outlets Ralph and other local critics and would-be competitors write for have been able to show. Love, Joe DiStefano

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    1. Joe DiStefano is a great guy and a wonderful reporter. However, my observations about the Inky's reporting on the carpenters' true investments and losses stands. Joe wrote the brief about it after I called the newsroom to alert them that they weren't playing by the rules. They waited 18 months before they finally ran this stuff on page D-3 the day after Christmas. What they did can't be defended from a journalistic perspective.

      I'm very aware the pension system has many other problems besides DROP. But DROP is so worthless it can't be defended. It could be eliminated tomorrow and that would be a step in the right direction. It also would be removing a powerful symbol of corruption.

      As for Pulitzers validating the Inky, I defer to Seymour Hersh in the Guardian interview:

      "Too much of it seems to me is looking for prizes. It's journalism looking for the Pulitzer Prize," Hersh said. "It's a packaged journalism, so you pick a target like – I don't mean to diminish because anyone who does it works hard – but are railway crossings safe and stuff like that, that's a serious issue but there are other issues too."

      That Pulitzer was won the day they diagrammed it on the blackboard. Journalism exists to take on the existing power structure. The Inky, for too long, has played it safe. Their targets over the years have been entirely predictable: Vince Fumo, the police and DHS come immediately to mind.

      They don't hand out prizes for pissing people off. And that's what the job of journalism often is. To create a newsroom that Ed Rendell wouldn't feel comfortable in.

      Judged by those standards, the Inky is a colossal failure. This town is hopelessly corrupt. The mayor, the City Council, L&I, the DA, PICA, nobody at any of those places has to worry for a second about the Inky taking them on.

      Ed Rendell got a complete pass from the Inky; so did Wilson Goode and Nutter. We live in a one-party town with no real elections. The incumbent DA doesn't even bother to debate his opponent. The machine in this town is bigger than ever; the Inky is smaller than ever. And playing it safe every day.

      A few trophies on the mantle, which mean nothing to the average reader, doesn't change that.



      Read more at http://www.bigtrial.net/2013/10/at-inky-theyre-pining-for-billy.html#aI0cCM2VLbM7Hds3.99

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  6. Great story Ralph.

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  7. interesting piece, Ralph! i am chewing it over! - amy

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