Phil Merrill and the Vanishing Iconoclastic Publishers
At NATO headquarters in Belgium, at a Washington power dinner, or among his employees at Washingtonian magazine, Philip Merrill was the kind of boss whose arrival was occasion for a frisson of fear, the occasional rolling of eyes, and a rush of anticipation.
No one ever accused Merrill--who is now presumed dead after his sailboat was found empty, his wallet still aboard, in the Chesapeake Bay over the weekend--of being a beancounter or a corporate conformist. The owner and publisher of Washingtonian magazine, the Annapolis Capital and a number of other Maryland newspapers was among the last of a vanishing breed in the media industry--the kind of owner who used his publications for whatever purposes interested him, with barely a nod toward the financial analysts, investors and other outsiders who think they know what to do with a journalistic outlet.
Merrill was not a swashbuckling editor of the Ben Bradlee ilk; Merrill's publications were hardly known for their journalistic verve or courage. But he was the kind of publisher who had favorite writers and favorite subjects and who appreciated journalists who liked to get into tough issues. In the continuum of publishers, with the great family institutions (Graham, Sulzberger, and once upon a time, Knight) on one end and the bland, cost-cutting public corporations (Gannett, the late Knight-Ridder) on the other, Merrill stood on a siding just off the middle of the route, along with a small group of mainly small-town owners who went their own way. There aren't many individualists left in a business now dominated by many-tentacled corporations; Merrill was his own man.
I first got to know Merrill when I was stationed in Germany as bureau chief for the Post; part of the gig was covering NATO and European-American defense and alliance issues. Merrill showed up at NATO headquarters as assistant secretary general of the alliance, an appointee of the first Bush administration. He started calling me to comment on my stories, and before long, we discovered that we had attended the same high school (though decades apart) and that we were both New York City kids who couldn't quite take entirely seriously the diplomats and military folks who were at work shaping the post-Soviet world.
Merrill--my high school alumni directory says he changed his name at some point from Philip Levine to Philip Merrill-- became a helpful source during a time of great tension over German unification and U.S.-Soviet relations in the final months of the Soviet Union. He had a delicious way of cutting through the self-important secrecy that diplomats and military people use to keep their work one step removed from the understanding and knowledge of the general public. And he loved to gossip.
When I visited him in Brussels and later saw him in Washington, I glimpsed another side of his personality--the part that reminded me of visiting the Yankee Stadium offices of George Steinbrenner. The mere rumor of his impending arrival was enough to send mere mortals scurrying to make sure everything was as the boss wanted it. Some thought him imperious, others found his shtick amusing. Merrill reminded me of other kids at our school in the Bronx, smart kids who were taught to follow their interests wherever they might lead, kids whose teachers incessantly drilled into them the idea that they were destined to run things.
Merrill could be absent-minded to the extreme, yet detail-obsessed as well. Just when he appeared to be clueless about something, he would pop in with a comment that showed he knew the topic frighteningly well.
If he'd been a smoother kind of person, others would have thought of him as charismatic and even visionary. But there was something awkward, even nerdy about him, causing some folks to underestimate Merrill. They did so at their peril.
In his last years, Merrill devoted himself to the Bay where he apparently died, and to the University of Maryland's journalism school, to which he made a $10 million donation that led to the school being renamed in his honor.
But he is best known for his city magazine, one of the few remaining books that sticks with the 1970s formula of service journalism along with lifestyle pieces and the occasional gritty piece of reporting, as pioneered by Clay Felker at New York magazine. Some like to deride Washingtonian as a magazine that essentially does the same stories every year, but it does them well, and it's often fun to read--in good part because the man who owned it liked to surround himself with people who shared his own wide-ranging interests in the world.
Phil Merrill was one of Washington's big characters, the kind of guy you'd want to sit next to at dinner. I'll miss him.
By Marc Fisher |
June 13, 2006; 7:20 AM ET
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