Stan Wischnowski, the top editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer, resigned Saturday, days after an article with the headline “Buildings Matter, Too,” on the effects of civil unrest on the city’s buildings, led to a walkout by dozens of staff members.
Lisa Hughes, the publisher of The Inquirer, the 191-year-old daily controlled by the nonprofit Lenfest Institute for Journalism, said Saturday in a memo to the staff that she had accepted Wischnowski’s decision to step down after 10 years across two stints as the leader of one of the country’s largest newsrooms.
The headline of the article — a column by The Inquirer’s architecture critic, Inga Saffron, that was published on Tuesday — played on the slogan “Black Lives Matter,” long a rallying cry for civil rights activists protesting police violence against African Americans. It has been a key phrase for demonstrators in the nearly two weeks of protests across the country and in cities worldwide since a black man in Minneapolis, George Floyd, died last month after being handcuffed and pinned to the ground by a white police officer’s knee.
The day after The Inquirer article was published, the paper’s top editors, including Wischnowski, who had worked at the paper for 20 years, issued an apology that appeared on its website.
“The Philadelphia Inquirer published a headline in Tuesday’s edition that was deeply offensive. We should not have printed it,” the editors wrote. “We’re sorry, and regret that we did. We also know that an apology on its own is not sufficient.
“The headline accompanied a story on the future of Philadelphia’s buildings and civic infrastructure in the aftermath of this week’s protests,” the apology continued. “The headline offensively riffed on the Black Lives Matter movement, and suggested an equivalence between the loss of buildings and the lives of black Americans. That is unacceptable.”
The apology noted that the headline had been “created by one editor” and reviewed by another before publication.
Staff members, working remotely because of the coronavirus pandemic, convened for a regularly scheduled videoconference that day. It turned into an hourslong discussion of newsroom diversity, pay inequity and other issues, said Diane Mastrull, a weekend editor and the president of the NewsGuild of Greater Philadelphia union.
“This week, the pain was just so palpable,” she said in an interview.
On Wednesday, staff members sent a letter to management called, ”An Open Letter From Journalists of Color at The Philadelphia Inquirer” announcing that they would call in sick the following day, and dozens did.
“We’re tired of shouldering the burden of dragging this 200-year-old institution kicking and screaming into a more equitable age,” the letter said. “We’re tired of being told of the progress the company has made and being served platitudes about ‘diversity and inclusion’ when we raise our concerns. We’re tired of seeing our words and photos twisted to fit a narrative that does not reflect our reality. We’re tired of being told to show both sides of issues there are no two sides of.”
The letter continued, “Things need to change.”
Hughes, the publisher, said on Saturday that management would search internally and externally for Wischnowski’s replacement. Wischnowski could not immediately be reached for comment.
David Boardman, the chairman of the Lenfest Institute board and dean of Temple University’s Klein College of Media and Communication, said in an emailed statement, “What Stan was able to accomplish as The Inquirer’s top editor, through a tumultuous turnstile of owners and publishers, has been remarkable.
“That said,” he added, “he leaves behind some decades-old, deep-seated and vitally important issues around diversity, equity and inclusion, issues that were not of his creation but that will likely benefit from a fresh approach.”
The discontent at The Inquirer came during a week when more than 800 employees of The New York Times signed a letter protesting the publication of an op-ed article by Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., calling for a military response to unrest in American cities.
Times leaders, including the publisher, A.G. Sulzberger, and the editorial page editor, James Bennet, apologized for publishing the article in a videoconference meeting with staff members Friday. Later that day, The Times appended an editor’s note to the op-ed.
“After publication, this essay met strong criticism from many readers (and many Times colleagues), prompting editors to review the piece and the editing process,” the note said. “Based on that review, we have concluded that the essay fell short of our standards and should not have been published.”