Bill Marimow

NPR's pick for news v.p. asks reporters to dig deep

Published in Current, Feb. 21, 2006
By Mike Janssen

NPR promoted Bill Marimow to v.p. of news Feb. 8, choosing a respected journalist who has strengthened the network's investigative reporting over the past two years.

Reporters applauded the selection and say Marimow, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner, draws on decades of valuable experience to help them meet his heightened standards for NPR's journalism. They appreciate that he mingles with staffers amid the newsroom's cubicles and strives for an open and friendly workplace.

"He's intense, very gentlemanly, extremely focused," says NPR President Kevin Klose, who, like Marimow, is a veteran of print journalism. "If he makes a commitment to you, you can take it to the bank."

Marimow, 58, had served as acting v.p. for four months. He succeeds Bruce Drake, who resigned Sept. 30 after five years in the job and almost 15 years with the network.

NPR hired Marimow in May 2004 as co-managing editor at the start of a three-year newsroom expansion funded with Joan Kroc's multimillion-dollar bequest. Marimow oversaw domestic news, training, newscasts and the integration of broadcast and online news content.

He has shaped NPR News by emphasizing dogged legwork and shepherding long-form stories that break news. These reports have won Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Awards and honors from Investigative Reporters and Editors.

Reporters credit Marimow's patience and counsel in fostering such work. "People are thinking in a much tougher way about digging than we used to, day in and day out," says Daniel Zwerdling, who has worked with Marimow on several investigative pieces.

Mining beats for exclusives

As v.p., Marimow will continue to refine a beat-reporting system that he enhanced as managing editor. The Kroc money allowed him to add a handful of new beats in areas such as the media, labor and the environment, and double up reporters on some subjects.

Stronger beat reporting will help NPR lead other media in breaking investigative stories, Marimow says. Seeing "the sparks that ignite is the way to get a story," he says, "and if you're on a beat, you see the sparks."

Marimow endorses continuing efforts to put out stories through new media. The network must be "100 percent sure that content is delivered wherever and whenever people want it," he says.

His rise to v.p. puts him in charge of foreign reporting, an area he did not previously supervise, and Marimow says he wants more overseas coverage that follows the journalistic maxim of "Show, don't tell." For example, reporters could introduce listeners to other countries' schoolrooms, police stations and other institutions with American counterparts.

Marimow wants to encourage a collegial and supportive environment in his newsroom "so there's a kind of momentum that produces more and better journalism."

"We need to encourage and inspire innovation," says Marimow. "I think this is not a period for timidity and hesitation."

The new veep had no radio experience before joining NPR and admits that long newspaper workdays left him too bleary to listen to public radio on the way home. But NPR colleagues say he is honest about his inexperience, and Marimow says he has learned that "print is one-dimensional, but you feel radio" through the emotion in voices. He recently encouraged a new Shanghai reporter to capture the sound of the heavy construction equipment reshaping the rapidly growing city.

Marimow has ample experience, however, in reporting, editing and managing staff. He worked as a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer from 1972 to 1986, where he won two Pulitzers for investigative reporting on police brutality.

Gene Roberts, the Inquirer's former executive editor, praises Marimow's abilities to teach and lead. As a young reporter, he was sometimes the greenest on team reporting projects, Roberts recalls, yet "almost invariably, by the time the story got in the paper, he was the leader of the group."

"He's one of America's most gifted and important journalists," Roberts says.

Marimow then served as the Inquirer's New Jersey editor from 1987 to 1989 and city editor from 1989 to 1991. After leaving the Inquirer, Marimow joined the Baltimore Sun in 1993. He was managing editor, metro editor and associate managing editor and became editor in 2000.

Sun Publisher Denise Palmer, brought in by a new owner, fired Marimow in January 2004, explaining in media reports that she had "personality" differences with him. Marimow did not comment publicly, but many Sun reporters lamented his departure. One called him a "hero."

For Marimow, who reportedly resisted staff cutbacks at the Sun, presiding over NPR's growing newsroom must be a welcome change. The newsman calls himself "an evacuee from the newspaper business" and laments that the drive to increase profits has crippled the public service mission of his alma maters.

"NPR, as the evidence shows, has a real, strong and enduring commitment to public service," he says.

Hard-nosed but easygoing

Reporters at NPR praise Marimow for his encouraging attitude and keen interest in reporting that can distinguish the network from competitors.

John McChesney, a correspondent based in San Francisco, has reported for NPR since 1979 but has done little investigative work. With Marimow's support, he reported a 22-minute story last fall detailing the 2003 death of an Iraqi insurgent at the Abu Ghraib prison.

Marimow gave McChesney five months to work on the report and guided him throughout the process, stressing that thorough reporting mattered more than a quick turnaround.

"That was, to me, a new attitude at NPR," McChesney says. It's "the kind of attitude on the part of an editor that elicits the best work from a reporter," he adds.

Marimow is known for exacting standards, such as tight restrictions on using unidentified sources. For a story on gas prices, McChesney interviewed a gas station customer who refused to give a name. Though the reporter argued that the name didn't matter, Marimow ordered him back to the gas station to find someone willing to be identified.

Marimow also insists on striving to get all sides of a story. A few phone calls to an important but reluctant source won't suffice — reporters under Marimow are told to send e-mails, write letters and track down interviewees in person, delaying the broadcast if necessary.

Though hard-nosed as an editor, Marimow is by many accounts a genial boss. He welcomes visitors to his office at all times, colleagues say, and prefers to keep his door open even during chats. Reporters hope his promotion to v.p. won't end his walks through the newsroom.

"The last time we had somebody who strolled around and chatted with people on a daily basis as he passed the cubicles was Frank Mankiewicz," says Zwerdling, referring to the NPR president who resigned in 1983. "That's not the only quality that makes a good manager, but it's really nice."

Web page posted Feb. 21, 2006
Current: the newspaper about public TV and radio in the United States
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Copyright 2006

OUTSIDE LINKS

Marimow's bio at NPR.org.

Coverage of Marimow's firing from the Baltimore Sun in the American Journalism Review, 2004.

Fact sheet on Marimow at the American Society of Newspaper Editors' website, 2000.

A publication at Trinity College, Marimow's alma mater, profiles the newsman, 1998.

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