Today, NPR was not just reporting news, but making news. Both The Washington Post and The New York Times (in an earlier story and an updated one) reported that Bill Marimow would no longer be running NPR's news division.
The name Bill Marimow probably means nothing to those of you who don't follow news. But journalists around the country know him as one of the nation's best. He's been in journalism for over three decades and won the Pulitzer Prize -- twice -- for reporting on police brutality. He came to NPR in May of 2004; he was promoted to his current position earlier this year.
Yesterday, rumors started circulating that Marimow was being forced out of NPR -- a prospect that filled many reporters here with dismay. But today, we learned that Marimow was going to be NPR's ombudsman, someone who critiques the organization as the public's representative. The New York Times characterized this as "a lower position" and a demotion.
This morning, a couple of hundred people trooped down to the big conference room on the first floor at 10:30 am, to finally get the official version of what was going on.
NPR's far-flung correspondents called in. Jay Kernis, Marimow's boss and NPR's senior vice-president, sat on a stool in the front of the room. He briefly announced what we'd already read in the newspapers; Marimow would be the ombudsman. Then he told us that Ellen Weiss, the national desk editor, would serve in Marimow's old position as NPR launches a search for a new executive. There were additional management reshufflings as well that were discussed in detail. Kernis had kind words to say about everyone. Weiss made a few remarks and received applause. Both speakers made a few jokes, and people laughed, but the mood of the audience was somewhat solemn.
Marimow was not at the meeting and his absence was striking. Kernis said that Marimow had a prior commitment in Boston.
Kernis said he'd open up the floor for a few questions. One reporter took the opportunity to remark that Marimow had recently taken him to lunch and gave him an incredible pep talk. He said this kind of interaction with reporters from top management was unusual at NPR and something that he hoped would be continued. (Marimow frequently wanders the newsroom, stopping to chat and talk with reporters about what they're doing. If you run into him in the cafeteria line, he'll want to buy you breakfast or a coffee. He'll send you emails about stories you have done with encouraging words and subject headings that say things like: "excellence.")
NPR staff members left the meeting without being told why Marimow resigned. Here's what Kernis and Marimow said in a memo.
I tried to reach Marimow to see if I could get more information, but he has not yet responded. Andi Sporkin, NPR's spokesperson and VP of communications, said that "we really don't discuss personnel matters." When asked if Marimow had been asked to resign, she said, "No." She said the offer that Marimow serve as ombudsman was brought up and discussed after he had submitted his resignation.
The last time Marimow left a job, he was being fired from his position as editor of The Baltimore Sun after a tenure of four years. Under his leadership, the paper won Pulitzer Prizes for investigative reporting, beat reporting and feature writing. His publisher at the time cited personality conflicts. Marimow does have a reputation for being kind of prickly and stubborn. But many observers felt that he'd been pushed out because he simply refused to make the kind of layoffs and cost-cutting measures that newspapers have been making all around the country.
NPR has been searching for a new ombudsman since our last one, Jeffrey Dvorkin, left this summer to serve as executive director of the Committee of Concerned Journalists. I called him to see what he thought. He said, "It's a difficult time, but I think Bill is fabulous and he'd make a great, great ombudsman. That's the silver lining in all of this."
When asked why he thought Marimow resigned, he said, "I'm not there so I don't know. My sense is that senior management wants someone else who they think is more in tune with what they think is right for NPR." Dvorkin noted that "at newspapers, it's a little more straightforward than it is in public radio," at least in terms of the "lines of authority." He said "you need to be much more consultative. The trick of it is managing up and down."
Dvorkin speaks from experience. He used to lead NPR's news division before he became ombudsman. He said a move to ombudsman "certainly can be perceived to be a demotion. That was certainly how I regarded it." But he says his years as an ombudsman ended up being among the best of his career, after he made the transition.
Can Marimow make the transition? Marimow is known for his tough ethical standards, so he'd surely find things to write about in an ombudsman's column. But some reporters in the newsroom were frankly amazed that he'd consider taking the ombudsman's job, which basically involves critiquing journalism after the fact. Marimow has always given off a sense that he loves shaping journalism -- working with reporters to investigate and dig deep. He's supposed to be back on Monday, serving as ombudsman.