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A beheading in Baltimore: the Sun jettisons an outstanding editor.

The problem, said the Baltimore Sun's rookie publisher, was lack of "chemistry." There wasn't really a good "fit." She wanted a true "partner."

And so Denise Palmer sacked one of America's top editors. Brutally.

Maybe she should have tried counseling.

The name Bill Marimow has long been associated with high-quality journalism. Marimow was an award-winning investigative reporter during the glory days at the Philadelphia Inquirer under the great Gene Roberts. One of his reporting partners was John Carroll.

Years later, when Carroll was editing the Baltimore Sun, he brought Marimow to Charm City. After a stint as metro editor, Marimow became managing editor. Together, Carroll and Marimow turned the Sun into a bastion of ambitious, hard-hitting, Pulitzer-laden public-service journalism (see "Rising Sun," October 1997).

When the Tribune Co. acquired Times Mirror in 2000, it wisely dispatched Carroll to put together the pieces at the Los Angeles Times, still reeling from the disastrous Mark Willes era and the Staples Center debacle. Equally wisely, Tribune gave Marimow the top newsroom job in Baltimore. (Full disclosure: Marimow is a friend and a fellow Philly guy.)

The Sun's publisher at the time was Mike Waller, a gravelly voiced former editor who remained a newsman until the day he retired. Under the two, the Sun continued its pursuit of journalistic excellence. When Waller stepped down in September 2002, he was succeeded by Palmer, a former Tribune Co. auditor who had been president of the company's ChicagoLand Television.

It's unclear exactly what precipitated Marimow's abrupt dismissal. Palmer summoned Marimow to a meeting on Monday, January 5. The next day he was succeeded by Tim Franklin, a longtime Tribune Co. journalist who had been editor of the company's Orlando Sentinel.

Aside from the vague comments about chemistry, Palmer has shed little light on the reasons for Marimow's ouster, and Marimow himself has kept mum. Palmer did say she wasn't dissatisfied with the Sun's journalism.

Now, it's obviously a publisher's prerogative to pick her own editor. But the issues that apparently put a strain on the Palmer-Marimow relationship are cause for concern.

During the Sun's bitter negotiations with the Newspaper Guild, the Tribune Co. took a hard line. Marimow publicly embraced the company position, but behind the scenes lobbied unsuccessfully for a less harsh approach. This turned out not to be a popular move with Tribune. Similarly, Marimow didn't like the way some non-newsroom dismissals over the Christmas holiday were handled. And while Marimow had reduced the newsroom staff significantly via attrition, he adamantly resisted layoffs in his department.

The editor's beheading triggered newsroom fears of yet more dramatic incursions by the bean counters. Some voiced concern over the fate of the paper's foreign bureaus. And some were apprehensive about broader ramifications. "The Tribune is a profit-oriented company, and higher profits are not always compatible with good journalism," Sun reporter Scott Shane told the Washington Post. "Marimow was very protective of the newsroom and good journalism. A lot of us were fearful that something like this might be on the way."

Jim Warren, a Chicago Tribune deputy managing editor, warned against casting his paper's parent company as an unfeeling "meanie" stomping on the cause of quality journalism.

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What was at stake, Warren told the New York Times, was a little midcourse correction in the Sun's culture. Seems Marimow had been resistant to using material from other Trib properties and engaging in joint endeavors.

Well, good for him. An editor ought to be able to decide what makes sense for his newspaper. That's one of the problems of our increasingly corporate newspaper landscape. It can lead to a disappointing sameness, a cookie-cutter approach. We need to do all we can to preserve the distinctive flavor of those papers that still hang on to it.

And as for the future of the Sun and other Tribune properties, let's keep a close watch. Papers like the L.A. Times and the Sun are true treasures. If the budget ax is wielded to beef up profit margins, it will be obvious.

Palmer says money issues weren't a factor in her decision. And Marimow's successor, Tim Franklin, has a reputation as a first-class journalist. So cross your fingers.

But regardless of the fallout, one thing is clear: There had to be a better denouement to the Marimow era in Baltimore than the ugly one we just witnessed.

AJR Editor and Senior Vice President Rem Rieder can be reached at rrieder@ajr.umd.edu.
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Title Annotation:From the Editor
Author:Rieder, Rem
Publication:American Journalism Review
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Feb 1, 2004
Words:742
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