Will the more-than-180-year-old newspaper continue to cover New Jersey and regional politics in the way it has done for years? Will articles be steered to favor causes supported by Norcross, which in the last year have included charter schools, the proposed merger of Rutgers-Camden and Rowan University, and the slashing of government worker benefits?
Norcross and the rest of his group, which includes the former controlling partner of the New Jersey Nets, Lewis Katz, and philanthropist H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, have said they just want to save a newspaper company that, like many, has seen its fortunes flag in recent years.
"No one's going to interfere with the news. [It] would be crazy to do that. That's what Walter Annenberg did. You can't do that today," Katz said at a news conference Monday, discussing the operations of The Inquirer, the Philadelphia Daily News, and Philly.com. Annenberg, who was known to bend the paper to his purposes, sold it to the former Knight Newspapers Inc. in 1969.
Norcross, a wealthy insurance executive and chairman of Cooper University Hospital in Camden, said in an e-mail that he would not even comment on Inquirer stories concerning him or his political and business interests because that would pose a conflict.
Norcross is not the first person with a powerful interest in politics to own a media organization.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg owns the business news wire that bears his name. News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch, owner of Fox News and other media, has made a business out of championing conservative causes.
But it is "unusual" for a person as actively involved in politics as Norcross to buy a news organization, said Rick Edmonds, a former Inquirer reporter and an analyst with the Poynter Institute, a journalism nonprofit in Florida.
"But we clearly are coming to a point where there's a different set of prospective owners," he said.
He cited California hotelier Doug Manchester, a voice for conservative causes who bought the San Diego Union-Tribune in November. The new ownership quickly drew criticism, according to the online news organization Voice of San Diego, when its top executive urged sports reporters to advocate for a new stadium for the Chargers and "call out those who don't as obstructionists." The executive later acknowledged it was a misstep.
Jeff Light, editor of the paper now known as U-T San Diego, said in an e-mail Wednesday that the new ownership has an "aggressive editorial approach, and they also understand the separation between church and state."
All of the Philadelphia newspaper company's new owners have a history of political involvement. Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell once described Katz as his "single biggest" political fund-raiser. Lenfest, who sold his cable company to Comcast in 2001 for $1.2 billion, is a Democratic donor. K.P. "Kris" Singh, Joseph Buckelew, and William P. Hankowsky have either been active in or made donations to Republican or Democratic causes.
But Norcross is especially problematic, critics say.
Tom Moran, a Newark Star-Ledger columnist who has covered New Jersey politics for 20 years - and said he once played poker with Norcross - described Norcross' relationship with the media as "very smart, combative top to bottom."
"We've ended phone calls shouting obscenities at each other," Moran said. "I find it hard to believe he's going to stay hands-off. That's not his style. On the other hand, it's possible. He's changed over the years. . . . I give it 10-1 odds he interferes."
But some are less pessimistic.
Ambrosino said he believed Norcross' business savvy was keen enough for him to know that a newspaper perceived as a tool would lose both readers and good journalists. "I'm sure he gets the business side. But maybe I'm naive."
Speculation about alleged interference first surfaced publicly in February when the New York Times reported on a delay in the publication of an Inquirer piece on Cooper University Hospital.
The story ran last month. It detailed instances in which insider firms won millions of dollars in hospital contracts and Norcross used his influence to beat back competitors.
With Norcross involved in so many aspects of public life in New Jersey, however, observers already are asking questions about other stories.
Ellen Goodman, cofounder of the Rutgers Institute for Information Law and Policy, said The Inquirer and other newspapers were not taking a hard-enough look at the proposed merger between Rowan and Rutgers-Camden, a cause championed by both Norcross and Republican Gov. Christie.
"On a general level, who's in this consortium? They're very politically connected, and well-connected to the business community. Those connections worry me," Goodman said.
Responding to such concerns, outgoing Inquirer editor Stan Wischnowski said in an e-mail that "it's up to the editor to build a strong fire wall against special interests and ensure that it's never crossed. This paper has a long and established record of accountability journalism and sound ethical decision-making. That certainly won't stop now."
R. Mangaliso Davis, a community activist in Camden who has frequently clashed with Norcross, said that whatever steps are taken, he worries that The Inquirer's new ownership will leave those opposed to Norcross without a voice. "Get ready to put your seat belts on, guys," he said.
Media organizations traditionally have a poor record of covering themselves and their owners, Edmonds said.
"The owners might not be exerting control, but maybe there's extra sensitivity [among reporters and editors] to particular kinds of stories that might be seen as offensive to them," he said.
But he added that the announcement Wednesday that two-time Pulitzer Prize winner William K. Marimow would return as The Inquirer's top editor after leaving the newsroom in 2011 was "a pretty decent fire wall in itself."
Said John Szefc, a former newspaper editor and publisher who is the regional manager for the media brokerage firm of W.B. Grimes & Co.: "There are concerns when unknown buyers come in. But I don't think their goal would be to do anything to destroy the franchise."
Contact James Osborne at 856-779-3876 or email@example.com.
Inquirer staff writers Ed Colimore and Rita Giordano contributed to this article.