Last night at 8:19 p.m., Bill Ross sent George E. Norcross III, a part owner of the Philadelphia Inquirer, the following e-mail: “Lenfest and Katz requesting a meeting with you and me. I will act as a mediator.”
That was it: Two sentences, which is how labor leaders conduct business in Philadelphia. “Nine out of ten e-mails, I’m calling someone an a**hole,” says Ross. In this case, he merely was inviting Norcross to a meeting. Ross is the executive director of Newspaper Guild/CWA Local 38010, which represents 550 employees across the three properties — the Inquirer plus the Philadelphia Daily News and Philly.com — that Norcross owns along with philanthropist H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest, businessman Lewis Katz and others. Norcross is the frontman for a majority ownership group that is battling Lenfest and Katz in court in the aftermath of the Oct. 7 firing of the Philadelphia Inquirer’s top editor, Bill Marimow. Lenfest and Katz claim that Marimow was improperly dismissed and are seeking his reinstatement.
Mediating the dispute is a noble, if quixotic, pursuit. While preliminary court hearings come and go, the three media properties are at risk of languishing. “Litigation doesn’t scare either side because you’re talking about guys who are billionaires, so that’s a problem,” says Ross. “We want to get this thing settled. We’re not in a good place.” Over two contract cycles, says Ross, the guild made important concessions to put the properties in a position to thrive. “Our members have done enough; we’ve cut as low as we can go…It’s time to start giving back to our employees,” says Ross.
Yesterday was a busy day for settlement proposals. Norcross & Co. offered to buy out Katz and Lenfest for $29 million, or a profit of 12 percent over the money they sunk into $55 million purchase, which took place in spring 2012. Katz and Lenfest rejected the offer, declaring in part, “We didn’t get into this for economic purposes. We invested because of public service and our civic duty. That was our motivation then; that is our motivation now; and that is the reason we filed the lawsuit.”
The standoff features dueling charges of editorial meddling: Katz and Lenfest insist that Norcross has been an activist force in the affairs of the Inquirer; Norcross alleges that Katz is guilty of the same offense, as he argues in a countersuit filed in a Delaware court. (The meddling cross-allegations got an extensive airing here.)
Though Lenfest is willing to sit across from Norcross in mediation, he’s not optimistic about the outcome. “Norcross doesn’t want to give up any control, that’s a recurrent theme,” he said this afternoon in a chat with the Erik Wemple Blog. Lenfest saw this trouble brewing months ago; he volunteered to serve as an interim publisher until the two sides could agree on a replacement for Publisher Bob Hall, who, Lenfest says, was headed for retirement. “I would be happy to do it for a short period,” says Lenfest. “I didn’t think it would take too long to find a new publisher.” Lenfest’s plan never made it past the bureaucracy at the top of Interstate General Media LLC, the parent company of the three properties.
As a way of breaking the logjam, Lenfest proposes that the two sides submit their bids for the properties in a sealed envelope. Higher bid prevails, as does drama.
In a press release showcasing its buyout offer, the Norcross faction included a paragraph that displeased Ross and the guild. Here it is:
We will seek to have as our partners in this effort the newspaper Guild, which represents staff members at the Inquirer, Daily News and philly.com. We believe it is good for the company to have the interests of its leaders and professionals workers aligned. We are pleased that in their public comments, the Guild has recognized that our majority ownership group not only better understands the operations of the company, but that we have a clear path forward.
Those words, says Ross, “misled all our members” into thinking that the guild was somehow in bed with Norcross and his friends. Not so, Ross hastens to clarify. The guild is “absolutely neutral” in this dispute, says Ross, whose only goal is a resolution.
Toward that end, Ross says he’s awaiting a reply from Norcross on his terse e-mail. As of earlier this afternoon, he said he hadn’t received one. Daniel Fee, a spokesman for the Norcross ownership group, didn’t directly address the Ross offer in an e-mail to the Erik Wemple Blog but did note that Norcross and his allies would “like to hear what the minority owners want in order to sell.”
As a way of breaking the logjam, Lenfest proposes that the two sides submit their bids for the properties in a sealed envelope. Higher bid prevails.