William K. Marimow, editor of The Inquirer, was abruptly fired Monday morning by publisher Robert J. Hall because of what Hall said were "philosophical differences" over the direction of the newspaper as it fights to maintain its print readership and establish a new digital presence.
The owners of the company that publishes the newspaper were divided on the firing, sources familiar with the matter said.
Hall informed employees of the move in a brief e-mail and announced that executive editor Stan Wischnowski would become acting editor.
"I returned to Philadelphia to edit The Inquirer because this is my hometown and it's my alma mater," Marimow, 66, said later in an interview. "We have done the best possible job we can under extremely difficult circumstances to produce an outstanding newspaper and a dynamic, vital website - meaning Inquirer.com."
Saying this was the job he had always wanted and loved, Marimow added, "I hope that in the foreseeable future I'll be back to edit The Inquirer."
As Marimow left the newsroom at 801 Market St. shortly before 7 p.m., the newspaper's staff gave him a standing ovation.
It was the second time that Marimow - a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner as an Inquirer reporter, and an editor known for championing investigative journalism - had been dismissed from the job. He served as editor from 2006 until 2010. During the 2011-12 school year, Marimow was a professor at Arizona State University and headed a project in digital journalism. He was rehired by the paper's new owner, Interstate General Media, in April 2012.
Hall in August demanded that Marimow fire several key Inquirer editors, which he declined to do, according to multiple sources familiar with the company's operations.
One owner, South Jersey businessman and political power broker George E. Norcross III, was pushing, along with Hall, to dismiss Marimow, while at least one member of the ownership group, the parking-lot mogul Lewis Katz, opposed the move, the sources said.
In a statement Monday night, Hall said firing Marimow was his decision. "As part of Interstate General Media's corporate documents, this ownership group agreed not to be involved in the editorial affairs and journalistic operations of The Inquirer," Hall said.
"The decision to terminate Bill Marimow as editor of The Inquirer was made by me and associate publisher Mike Lorenca, which is within our authority to make such a decision," Hall said. He added that "although not required, five out of six of our directors/owners have concurred in our decision to terminate Bill Marimow."
When contacted by phone early Monday afternoon, H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, chairman of Interstate General Media, said, "I heard the news this morning. I'm not prepared to make a statement until I know what's going on."
Asked whether he had been aware of the decision to fire Marimow, Lenfest said, "No. I'm not prepared to say any more right now."
Katz declined to comment, and Norcross, through a company spokesman, referred to Hall's statement.
The other owners of the parent company are Joseph E. Buckelew, William P. Hankowsky, and Krishna P. Singh II.
Interstate General Media bought the newspaper last year along with the Philadelphia Daily News and Philly.com for about $55 million. That was significantly below the $515 million sale price to a different local ownership group in 2006, and the $139 million that creditors paid at a 2010 bankruptcy auction.
Like others in the industry, the company has been roiled by management changes and cost-cutting in recent years.
"I have a lot of respect for Bill as a journalist," Hall said Monday in a midday interview. "I have known Bill for a lot of years. We had some philosophical differences on the direction of The Inquirer, and how we respond to readers and research."
Hall did not detail specific disagreements with Marimow beyond that, and during a 40-minute afternoon staff meeting with Inquirer employees pressing him for answers, he also declined to discuss what led to the editor's firing.
"It was the urgency to make changes and the type of changes to be made, based on research," Hall said in the earlier interview. IGM has conducted market research showing that casual readers of the newspaper and nonreaders could be enticed with more local news focused on their daily concerns.
"Currently, we are on a path to becoming a more local paper, with local content that is relevant to the readers," Hall said. "It's all about their life and their community." In the midday interview, Hall said that the financial condition of the company has improved. "We are actually having a decent year," Hall said. "We are probably a little short of target. But certainly we're in the ballpark of where we want to be. We've made progress this year."
Wischnowski, who also took over when Marimow was let go the first time, said, "The journalistic and ethical values both Bill and I subscribe to will not change one bit." He said his "top priority at the moment is to keep the staff focused on the type of high-quality journalism our readers expect and deserve."
In a private e-mail sent to the ownership group Monday detailing reasons that led to Marimow's dismissal, Hall said the editor had been "slow and piecemeal" in making personnel and content changes. Marimow was faulted for saying a planned redesign of the paper should be "an evolution, not a revolution," for instance.
Marimow declined to comment on the e-mail.