The brawl over the Philadelphia Inquirer isn’t good for the Philadelphia Inquirer. It is, however, an amazing story, one that just got a touch more contentious this afternoon.
Bill Ross, the outspoken executive director of Philadelphia’s Newspaper Guild, has blasted out an open letter filleting one of the part-owners of the company that runs the Inquirer, the Philadelphia Daily News and Philly.com. H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest, a former billionaire cable entrepreneur-turned-philanthropist, is the target of Ross’s outburst.
Lenfest and Lewis Katz, a partner in the Inquirer’s parent company, backed out of an attempt at a negotiated settlement to an ongoing ownership fight. Here’s the text of the letter:
Dear Mr. Lenfest,
It is with great disappointment that I write you today.
As you know, the Newspaper Guild Executive Board has remained neutral and not allied itself with either the minority or majority owners in the ongoing dispute over control of Interstate General Media.
But I can no longer refrain from telling my membership about your actions over the past few weeks in which you have misled me, lied to me and attempted to cast doubt on my credibility to the other owners of the company.
First, you and Lewis told our board that George Norcross made the decision to cut the Inquirer editorial pages, which was later proven to be a lie when Bob Hall sent a string of owner emails to employees last week.
Then, early last week it was Lewis Katz who asked me to invite George Norcross to a meeting in which I would act as mediator to try and resolve your litigation. To get a feeling of what your side wanted to propose as a settlement I spoke with Lewis by phone and met with you in your office Wednesday. That was when you said you and Lewis would sell your interest in IGM once you felt the company was in capable hands. To reach that point you said that Lewis and George would each nominate two members to a Board of Directors and you would appoint a tie breaking member. That board would work together to hire a new publisher who would then hire a new editor for the Inquirer. I asked if you understood that Bill Marimow would not be the editor and you said yes. You also stated several times that you wished to serve as the publisher on an interim basis.
After we spoke I approached Lewis with the idea and he also understood what I would convey to George. Once I did so, and confirmed that the majority owners saw this overture as a positive basis for settlement discussion, you both changed your minds. You told me you were emboldened by Judge McInerney’s decision to hear the case in Philadelphia and you backed off your settlement talks and denied ever indicating you would sell your shares and also referred to a scenario in which Marimow did not return to the Inquirer as a deal breaker. You both denied making any offers to sell your shares and acted as though I had concocted this idea out of thin air.
Through conversations with Lewis it has become clear that his only plan for the company is to waste money on legal fees to bring his friend Bill Marimow back to a position in which many of my members, as well as industry observers, feel he is not equipped for, to bring back Brian Tierney who drove the company into bankruptcy and has nothing but distrust from my members, and to make sure his companion returns to a Guild job in the Inquirer newsroom. The last of which is amusing because she once conducted a byline count of her colleagues, breaking down how much each earned per story written and told the owners that her fellow journalists were paid too much.
You say the fight is not about money, and that the newspapers are a “public trust,” but it was only a few months ago you threatened to liquidate the company if our union didn’t agree to wage cuts and other concessions to help the company get on solid footing. How can I believe you have a long term vision for the future of this enterprise further than your own self interest to serve as publisher?
The fact that you and Lewis waged a court battle over the Publisher’s decision to fire an editor, after pledging not to interfere with the editorial operations of the newspapers, has once again forced this company into a situation of turmoil and uncertainty that negatively impacts your employees, advertisers and community. My members have been through enough drama at this company. I cannot demand you and Lewis sell your interest in the company, but I must demand that you treat my members with the respect and honesty they so greatly deserve.
A little primer is necessary to understand what Ross is alleging here: On Oct. 7, top Inquirer editor Bill Marimow was fired by publisher Robert Hall for failing to carry out a number of reforms in the newsroom. He protested that the firing wasn’t allowable under the operating agreement of Interstate General Media (IGM), the media outlets’ parent company. On Oct. 10, IGM minority partners Lenfest and Katz, a prominent regional businessman, sued for reinstatement of Marimow. They are opposed by a group of majority-stake owners spearheaded by George E. Norcross III, a force in southern New Jersey politics and a prominent insurance executive. Norcross countersued in the Marimow affair, charging that Katz had been interfering in the Inquirer’s editorial affairs in violation of a provision of the IGM operating agreement prohibiting meddling by owners in newsroom decisions.
To sort out the allegations: The Katz-Lenfest faction insists that Hall canned Marimow improperly and has allowed Norcross to stick his nose into newsroom matters. “Norcross doesn’t want to give up any control, that’s a recurrent theme,” Lenfest told the Erik Wemple Blog.
The Norcross faction, meanwhile, lobs essentially the same allegation back at Katz-Lenfest.
In the middle of it all stands the guild, which represents 550 employees in the three Philadelphia media properties. In a chat last week with the Erik Wemple Blog, Ross expressed his commitment to staying neutral in the dispute between the ownership groups. At every turn, the guild gives the same message: It wants to protect its employees, not to take sides in the dispute. “Our members have done enough; we’ve cut as low as we can go . . . It’s time to start giving back to our employees,” Ross said last week.
Against that pledge of neutrality comes the letter to Lenfest.
“It’s terrible,” Lenfest told the Erik Wemple Blog this afternoon. “They must be in Norcross’s lap. I’m going to send a reply to that tomorrow.”
In the interim, Lenfest offered an abbreviated point-by-point rebuttal:
*On the question of what it’d take to settle the litigation, Lenfest said he told Ross that a board should be assembled with equal representation between the Katz and Norcross factions with an independent, tie-breaking member appointed by a consensus of these board members. The board would choose a new publisher. Under this proposal, Marimow would come back to complete the term of his contract, with any extension up to the discretion of the board.
*In response to the accusation about his willingness to sell his shares, Lenfest asked, “He claims I would sell my interest. How would I continue as publisher and member of the board and sell my interest?”
*To the claim that he lied to Ross, Lenfest said, “I don’t lie.”
Then there’s Ross’s claim that Lenfest misrepresented Marimow’s reduction of the Inquirer opinion pages as a decision of Norcross. That’s a complicated one.
As addressed in this post, Marimow in early September indeed scaled back the paper’s daily opinion section from two pages to one page. On a technical level, then, the “decision” belonged to Marimow. The impetus behind the decision is a murkier matter. A source close to Marimow indicated last week that Norcross had called Marimow for a meeting early in 2013 at which he presented targeted research — from a polling firm close to Norcross — hammering the Inquirer’s editorial and columnist offerings. Marimow interpreted the session as an “ultimatum” to trim the section, according to the source.
Ross laments that this dispute has landed in court, where it promises to claim resources and attention better channeled in more productive directions. As his open letter attests, however, perhaps only a judicial proceeding can sort this one out.
The Inquirer itself is reporting that the guild’s executive board didn’t sign off on the Ross letter, and that it represents his views alone.