October 30, 2013
Former Philadelphia Inquirer editor Bill Marimow, right. (Joseph Kaczmarek/Associated Press)
Former Philadelphia Inquirer editor Bill Marimow, right. (Joseph Kaczmarek/Associated Press)

George E. Norcross III, part owner of the Philadelphia Inquirer, likes data. He is a prominent insurance executive and a massive force in New Jersey Democratic politics, not to mention the chairman of the board of trustees of the Cooper Health System and Cooper University Hospital in Camden, N.J. In all of those positions, he needs detailed information to make key decisions. “We all think we know,” he once told Steve Volk of Philadelphia Magazine. “But until we do the research, we don’t know.”

In April, 2012, Norcross and a gaggle of other prominent regional players teamed up to buy the Inquirer, the Philadelphia Daily News and Philly.com for $55 million. Norcross’s partners included Lewis Katz, a parking magnate and former owner of the New Jersey Nets; H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest, a former cable-TV entrepreneur-turned-philanthropist; and others. They took over a set of media properties that had gone through owners like screensavers and that suffered from the same miserable business conditions that had been sucking the value out of regional newspapers across the country.

Guiding the new properties would require data. In July and August, 2012, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research “conducted a series of 18 focus groups and 4 telephone surveys with residents in the Philadelphia Inquirer’s target counties,” according to a summation provided to the Erik Wemple Blog. The surveys included at least 1,200 interviews, half with Inquirer subscribers and half with the “general population.” According to a source familiar with the study, it was brick-thick when it landed at the Inquirer’s offices.

Greenberg Quinlan Rosner has been closely associated with Norcross in the past. In 2008, for instance, PolitickerNJ reported that Norcross had commissioned the firm to complete a poll on the Democratic presidential primary battle in New Jersey. The firm’s Web site lists Norcross’s Cooper University Hospital on its client list, along with some southern New Jersey Democratic organizations. When asked whether Norcross had arranged the deal with Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, Daniel Fee, a spokesman for Norcross and his allies in the Inquirer’s ownership group, responded that the group as a whole was “part of it.” On whether Norcross was the driving force, Fee said, “They are a well established national research firm, well-respected.”

The firm’s findings sure did land with impact at the Philadelphia Inquirer, helping to tear asunder the ownership group to the point of an ongoing civil case. On Oct. 7, top editor and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Bill Marimow was fired by Publisher Robert Hall for various alleged offenses, including “recalcitrance.” Marimow resisted the dismissal and raised questions as to whether it had complied with the operating agreement promulgated by the owners in late March, 2012. Those questions surfaced in an Oct. 10 action in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, whereby owners Katz and Lenfest requested the reinstatement of Marimow. Norcross later countersued, alleging that Katz had meddled in editorial matters in violation of the ownership agreement. That’s the same offense that Norcross has been busy denying. A provision of the operating agreement forbids intervention by ownership into journalistic matters.

So what’s the deal with these meddling charges?

A source close to Marimow insists that pressure from Norcross descended around the time that the research from Greenberg Quinlan Rosner started making the rounds. Norcross was animated by the data, says the source, and was clearly involved in its “inception.” Though the focus groups yielded lots of information on the audience of the Inquirer, Norcross appeared particularly interested in its implications for two aspects of the Inquirer: Its columnists and its editorials.

In a Sunday meeting at the Philadelphia Marriott Downtown in the early weeks of 2013, Norcross presented two documents to Marimow, both of them based on data from Greenberg Quinlan Rosner: “The Public’s View of Columnists” and “The Public’s View of Editorials.” They were written by two officials with the research firm and addressed to Hall. All you need to know about these two reports comes in their first sentences:

“Our summer research on the Inquirer shows that the paper’s columnists are essentially unknown, and they are not a driving influence on either readership or the decision to subscribe.” And: “Our summer research on the Inquirer shows, while editorials are read and liked by some of our audience, they are not a driving influence on either readership or the decision to subscribe for the vast majority of readers.” Bold text in original.

The Marimow source says there was no agenda for the meeting, and it was the first time that the editor had seen these particular memos. He emerged from the session believing that the documents and Norcross’s endorsement of them constituted something of an “ultimatum.” Unlike the hierarchy at other newspapers, Marimow has authority over both the editorial pod and the news operation.

When asked about this meeting, Fee said that the two men would meet now and again “at Marimow’s invitation, to discuss things Marinow wanted to discuss, such as customer service, home delivery, etc. — which are business issues and not issues of journalistic or editorial operations.” The Marimow source counters that an assistant for Norcross reached out to set up the meeting.

Whatever the provenance of the meeting, the message of the documents on the table was unmistakable. They were merciless in their pounding of the Inquirer’s columnists and editorials. Some choice moments: The only Inquirer columnist to get “even a semblance of recognition,” reads the memo, is Michael Smerconish, the irrepressible multiplatform opinionator who occasionally pops up on MSNBC. He’s recognized by 3 percent of the Inquirer market, 4 percent of readers and “just 9 percent of subscribers.” “Even if readers want a little opinion and commentary (which we believe they do, just less than the paper has now), they do not appear to care who authors said content,” reads the memo.

At the same time, the memo concedes that “30 percent of readers say they ‘always’ read the columnists and opinions. This figure is decent, but well below the 53 and 46 percent who say they always read the local news and national news, respectively.” A seasoned journo might question the fruit-comparability of columnists to “local news” and “national news.”

In one of those realities of which journalists hate to be reminded, coupons ranked well in the survey. Editorials fared poorly vis-a-vis these gimmicks: “Only 15 percent of the market says the Inquirer does an ‘excellent’ job on opinion and editorial coverage, well below the paper’s strengths — sports (27 percent excellent), local news (24 percent excellent), and coupons (23 percent excellent).”

To judge from subsequent events at the Inquirer, the memos had quite an impact. The first step in their direction came when Marimow eliminated Saturday editorials, expendable because the paper’s Sunday bulldog edition came out early enough to all but overlap with the Saturday edition. Then, in early September, Marimow reduced the daily opinion offering from two pages to one. “We’re not happy,” an unnamed source told the Philadelphia City Paper. “The worst thing about it is that this is the public’s section. This is their voice. They write us letters. All sorts of folks write op-eds.”

A Norcross imperative fulfilled? That’s a matter of some dispute. A Sept. 4 e-mail from Katz to Norcross provided to the Erik Wemple Blog included this passage: “I asked Marimow if you were responsible for the change on the opinion page and he said no he did it because he assumed [Hall] wanted it done as a cost cut in accord with the poll,” wrote Katz. Norcross replied to Katz, saying that Marimow “directly told staff I had ordered this change (false) because he didn’t want to be blamed for his own decision.”

The source close to Marimow tells us that the editor carried out the opinion-page reduction because he was being pressured on various fronts, including a directive to fire various newsroom employees. Moving from two opinion pages to one, says the source, was Marimow’s way of appeasing Norcross and Hall.

If you believe Marimow’s version of events, then Norcross is a genius. Here’s how: The Marimow camp contends that it was Norcross’s meddling ways that pushed him to downsize the paper’s editorial and opinion coverage. After news of the plans surfaced, some voices raised objections, including ownership partner and philanthropist Lenfest. On Sept. 5, Lenfest sent an e-mail saying, “Based on all the appeals received and my strong belief, do not reduce the number of Op-Ed pages in the Inquirer.” To that notion, Norcross responded, in part: “As we all pledged from the beginning and should continue, I suggest we refrain from involving ourselves in Editorial decisions/staff matters.”

Such e-mails flew around during tense times at the top of the Inquirer’s masthead. Documents leaked at the outset of recent turmoil note that Marimow attended a July 16 meeting at which he received a set of instructions from Hall on various reforms he had to implement. Those included, but are certainly not limited to, a redesign, staff changes, improvement of coverage in suburban Pennsylvania and a plan to upgrade business coverage in classic 21st century fashion: “without additional resources.” Hall was unhappy with Marimow’s lack of eagerness to carry out the changes, and he charged in a long — and leaked — e-mail that the editor had teamed up with Katz to thwart the agenda. “In short, what it comes down to is that Marimow does not want to make the changes and is relying on the interference of Lewis Katz to accomplish his goal,” wrote Hall.

The rationale behind the move to eliminate opinions and editorials at the Inquirer is a bit elusive. Perhaps it was a sincere effort by Hall — and, if Marimow’s camp is to be believed, Norcross — to follow the cold data provided by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner. If people weren’t identifying with the material, why provide it?

Then again, why not just improve the offerings, “without additional resources”? If that approach works for business coverage, why wouldn’t it work for opinion stuff? Another consideration relates to the importance of coverage areas in the studies presented to Marimow. In a ranking of features that motivate people to continue their subscriptions, “opinions and editorials” out-rank international news, entertainment and politics, among others. Is anyone in the building proposing to phase out coverage of politics? “They seem to have cherry-picked opinion and editorial coverage,” says the source close to Marimow.

As for the role of columnists, here’s a firm truth: A newspaper is not a newspaper without them.

Newspaper editors in recent years have suffered right along with the bottom lines of their organizations. They’ve had to sit through endless lectures from new-media types selling the latest strategy to make their properties viable. They’ve had to listen to business-side folks say, Why can’t we be more like the Huffington Post? They’ve had to assign and re-assign and re-re-assign their staffers to all manner of jobs in efforts to finally get on top of the digital revolution. And, of course, they’ve had to lay people off.

All of that looks easy compared to the torture of working for a fractious, e-mail-happy ownership group.

News flash: Moments ago, Norcross and his majority-ownership group has offered to buy out the other owners for $29 million. More on that later.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.