Stan Wischnowski, the top editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer, has announced his resignation, days after discontent among the newspaper’s staff erupted over a headline on a column about the impact of the civil unrest following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Wischnowski, 58, led the paper over two turbulent periods in recent years, driving it; its sister paper, the Daily News; and its website, Inquirer.com, to reshape themselves as the digital age transformed the news business. He was key in the creation of Spotlight PA, a new multireporter team to provide news outlets across Pennsylvania with investigative coverage of state government. He also was in charge in 2011 when The Inquirer investigated violence within Philadelphia schools, a series awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
In a statement Saturday afternoon, publisher Lisa Hughes said that Wischnowski “has decided to step down as senior vice president and executive editor.” She thanked him for his 20 years working at the paper and serving as executive editor.
He will formally leave the paper on June 12. No successor was named, but Hughes wrote to the staff that “We will use this moment to evaluate the organizational structure and processes of the newsroom, assess what we need, and look both internally and externally for a seasoned leader who embodies our values, embraces our shared strategy, and understands the diversity of the communities we serve.
“While we conduct this evaluation and search, I am confident in [editor] Gabe Escobar and [managing editor] Patrick Kerkstra’s ability to continue to lead our newsroom in their current roles.”
Wischnowski declined comment. Hughes, through a spokesperson, said she would have no further comment.
It was the placement of an insensitive headline over Inga Saffron’s column in the Tuesday newspaper that may have set the stage for Wischnowski’s departure. He joined the two other top editors in signing an apology to readers and staff, characterizing the headline, “Buildings Matter, Too,” as “deeply offensive” and apologizing for it. The column had explored the destruction of buildings amid the looting that accompanied some of the nationwide protests over police violence.
» READ MORE: An apology to our readers and employees
Even before the headline was published, Wischnowski and other editors had scheduled a staffwide Zoom meeting to discuss race at The Inquirer and the pressures in particular faced by journalists of color.
Wischnowski, low-key and measured, as is his personality, told staffers on Wednesday that the paper had made strides in diversifying its 213-member newsroom, boosting minority representation to 27% of the editorial workforce, about a doubling in four years. He promised more such hires.
The session turned intense and emotional. Some journalists could be seen in tears in their Zoom frames. Critics, black and white, denounced the pace of change at the paper, sharply criticizing both coverage and the racial and gender mix of the staff. Several journalists pointed out that the newspaper could muster only one male African American reporter to cover the protests and police response convulsing a city that is majority minority.
Hours after the wrenching Zoom session, about 50 journalists of color signed an open letter calling for faster changes at the paper. The following day, most of the minority staff took the day off from work in protest.
“It’s no coincidence that communities hurt by systemic racism only see journalists in their neighborhoods when people are shot or buildings burn down,” the letter read in part. It added: “We’re tired of shouldering the burden of dragging this 200-year-old institution kicking and screaming into a more equitable age.”
In a message to union members Saturday night, Diane Mastrull, an Inquirer journalist who heads the Newspaper Guild local at the paper, wrote: “To my colleagues of color, please take heart that you have been heard.”
She added: "But you must not grow silent. There is much within the Inquirer that still needs to change.”
Wischnowski, a graduate of Western Illinois University, began his professional life at the Kankakee (Ill.) Daily Journal in 1982 as a sports stringer. From there he worked at newspapers in Detroit and Lansing, Mich., and Rochester, N.Y., before joining The Inquirer in 2000.
At the Philadelphia paper, he organized its coverage of elections and won a national page-design award for its 9/11 coverage. He served as a deputy managing editor, supervising the critical night operation for a morning paper, and took on other roles managing the newspaper’s budget and union negotiations.
In 2010, when new, hedge-fund owners acquired The Inquirer, he became the paper’s fifth editor in 10 years, replacing William K. Marimow.
It was during that period when the paper’s Assault on Learning series was published.
“The future of any great American city depends on providing a safe environment in which young people can learn,” he told a reporter for a profile for his old hometown paper, in Illinois. “Our series exposed in graphic and painstaking detail the ways in which we are failing this generation.”
In a two-step, Marimow returned as editor once more, only to be replaced again by Wischnowski. He has been the newsroom’s top editor since 2015.
Josh Kopelman, board chair of The Inquirer, praised Wischnowski for his service, writing: “Stan has been at the Inquirer for 20 years, and during that time has accomplished a lot. He oversaw the merging of three newsrooms into one, he launched Spotlight PA, ... and he helped drive our first steps to improve the diversity in the newsroom. I wish him the best of luck in his future endeavors and have the utmost confidence in Lisa, Gabe, and Patrick going forward.”
Jim Friedlich, executive director of the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, which owns the newspaper, wrote: “Under Stan’s leadership, the Inquirer’s newsroom has made Philadelphia a better place. The Lenfest Institute is especially proud of the investigative journalism that our grant support has helped enable, including work on COVID-19, public school and environmental safety, criminal justice reform, and the accountability of state and local government."