Bill Marimow is one Gene Roberts' Boys. It's an important fraternity in the newspaper business, an analog of Ed Murrow's Boys at the awakening of CBS News. Over a 18-year career there, Roberts built the Inquirer into one of the most respected and decorated papers in the country. Before he left in 1990, the Inquirer had collected 17 Pulitzers and pushed Knight Ridder newspapers into the top tier of American journalism. And Marimow was one of the prime movers there, before moving on to edit the Baltimore Sun, and then, in 2004, to National Public Radio.
Marimow left the top new exec job at NPR on Friday, apparently forced out due to internal strife. Whatever the cause, his tenure -- and his departure -- are well worth watching because of the increasing importance of NPR as a vital source of news, investigation and commentary.
Consider NPR's audience reach. It's an estimated 20 million a week.
Consider its global reach. It has 16 bureaus outside the U.S.; yes, they are still quaintly called "foreign bureaus." In places we need to know about:
- New Delhi
- Cape Town
- Mexico City
- Rio dei Janeiro
Marimow was known to be irascible and that apparently contributed to his stepping aside into a role as NPR's Ombudsman. Workplaces are never easy, but as one of those 20 million listeners, I could hear the sharper edge Marimow -- first as managing editor, then as v.p. for news -- brought to the network. The avuncular Robert Siegel's interviews often had more of an edge, challenging apologist interviewees. Special projects tackled many topics including pharmaceutical corruption -- at great length during All Things Considered. The reporting from Baghdad and Iraq has excelled, letting us hear and almost see the carnage there.
Good reporting and good interviewing is always to be prized. But never more than now. Just this week's newspaper earnings reports are enough to send a major shiver down shriveling newsroom's necks. Staffs are being cut, newshole sliced and "foreign bureaus" are on the top of almost every newspaper's company CEO's "must go" list.
Sure, we have the AP, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the bureaus of the embattled L.A. Times and a few others. Sure we have newfound access to the BBC. But the sources of international reporting and of incisive national reporting are fewer than they've been.
So NPR matters more.
Marimow rode the wave of hamburger money to sharpen NPR's knife. That's Joan Kroc's $235 million bequest to NPR for reporting, given upon her death in 2003. She was the wife of Ray Kroc, the entrepreneur behind McDonald's. Such is the way of money in the U.S.: Death-dealing hamburgers build great journalistic enterprises. Rather than decrying the irony, we ought to celebrate it and expand it.
Joan Kroc's bequest is audible to many of us every day. What would happen if newspaper properties -- and more important news-producing organizations -- were bolstered by big-time, private money? What if our models are funding high-quality, professional, experienced reporting relied somewhat more on people like Joan Kroc, public-minded citizens who happened into great wealth. There's many of them out there. It's time to see that money flowing before we lose hundreds more experienced journalists we all need to keep us informed.