King said he thought he was leaving the newspaper ``true to its values'' and at a particularly opportune time. The Inquirer recently achieved modest gains in circulation and won its first Pulitzer Prize since 1990. King said it also had a strong sense of momentum and better morale than it has had in years.
No successor was named. Inquirer publisher and chairman Robert J. Hall said he planned to search for a new editor during the next six to eight weeks. Hall said his search would extend within the newspaper; its parent company, Knight-Ridder Inc. of Miami, and elsewhere.
Questioned by staffers, Hall declined to express a preference on drawing a new editor from the ranks of the newspaper. ``I'd really rather not anoint someone as a favorite,'' he said.
King said he would take a 10-month leave, then return to the newspaper in November 1998 as an associate editor with the editorial board. ``I love the paper, and I want to remain here,'' he said.
In a statement, Knight-Ridder chairman P. Anthony Ridder described King as ``a warm, caring and creative person who is relinquishing a very difficult job for understandable reasons,'' and said he had displayed ``strong marketing skills with keen editorial sensitivities.''
Colleagues and former coworkers said King is a bright, forthright and dedicated newsman who has struggled mightily to improve The Inquirer during difficult economic times for the newspaper industry.
Deputy editor Gene Foreman, who will be leaving The Inquirer next year to teach at Pennsylvania State University, described King as ``analytic and very articulate,'' and added, ``I don't know anyone who's worked harder to help build a paper for its readers.''
He said King's impact could be seen in the newspaper's daily zoned suburban sections, in its emphasis on in-depth stories, and in its sharper focus on breaking news.
Steven M. Lovelady, editor-at-large for Time Inc. and a former managing editor of The Inquirer, said, ``Max showed it was possible, even under severe cost constraints, to maintain a core measure of quality and verve. . . . Max gets his eye on a goal and is just relentless about trying to get there.''
King is leaving the top editorial post following several triumphs. After seven years without a Pulitzer - the paper won 17 under King's predecessor, Eugene L. Roberts Jr. - The Inquirer won one of journalism's top prizes in the spring. It honored a series of articles and photographs depicting the ways critically ill people deal with impending death, and grew out of a discussion King had with staff writer Michael Vitez after the death of one of King's relatives.
In addition, for the six months ending Sept. 30, both the daily and Sunday Inquirers realized their first circulation gains after years of slipping sales. The Inquirer's six-month average daily sales figure was 428,233, up 1,058 copies a day over the same period last year. The Sunday average circulation was 878,660, up 1,991 copies.
Among the problems that King has faced during his tenure was the recession in the early '90s, which brought severe drops in advertising. Even as that eased, skyrocketing newsprint prices kept the pressure on. A wealth of new entertainment and information choices, from the Internet to satellite television, and changing American tastes also have pressured the newspaper business.
In late 1995, Knight-Ridder chairman Ridder said The Inquirer had to boost its profit margins from 8 percent to 12 percent in 1996 and 16 percent in 1997. Hall said yesterday that the paper had achieved those goals.
Since 1990, the newspaper has cut the equivalent of 60 full-time staffers from the newsroom through buyouts and attrition, King said. Today, the newsroom has the equivalent of 560 full-time people when part-timers are included.
``I think he's done a great job in extremely trying times,'' said Daily News editor Zachary Stalberg. ``I think this job has worn hard on him. I'm glad to see him make a step for himself.''
James M. Naughton, a former executive editor of The Inquirer, said King has managed to thrive under pressure and sustain the investigative reporting the newspaper was known for. ``Max provided a steadiness in a time when a lot of news organizations were being rocked'' by economic pressures, said Naughton, now president of the Poynter Institute, which runs educational programs for journalists.
King - whose grandfather was the renowned editor Maxwell Perkins, who discovered Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe - joined The Inquirer in 1972. He worked as a reporter and editor, and was the senior vice president for marketing and circulation of Philadelphia Newspapers Inc., which publishes The Inquirer and the Daily News, when he was tapped in 1990 to be the top editor.
King stepped into the shadow cast by Roberts, who transformed The Inquirer from a second-rate local institution into a nationally respected newspaper.
Whereas Roberts was enigmatic, cryptic and almost mysterious in his indirection, King has been direct and collegial, soft-spoken and intense. Bearded, trim and athletic, comfortably clad in khakis and a loosened tie, he is casual in appearance and approachable in style. Staffers made appointments to join him on brisk noontime walks - known as ``Max-walks'' - to discuss problems or ambitions. And King has been quick to fire off notes, dubbed ``Max-notes,'' to compliment staffers on good pieces of work.
King is a fairly private individual who spends his spare time clearing bramble and chopping wood on his farm in Chester County. He and his wife, Margaret Ann, who raises goats and sells goat cheese, own sculls and go rowing.
``One nice thing about Max is he has no pretense,'' Lovelady said. ``He doesn't want to be a man about town. If you asked Max the 10 best restaurants in Philadelphia, he wouldn't have a clue.''