IGM faction says newsroom integrity threatened

H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, left, and Lewis Katz said Inquirer editor William K. Marimow was fired because he resisted meddling in newsroom matters by co-owner George E. Norcross III.
H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, left, and Lewis Katz said Inquirer editor William K. Marimow was fired because he resisted meddling in newsroom matters by co-owner George E. Norcross III.
Posted: November 10, 2013

Two co-owners of The Inquirer told employees Friday that they had launched a legal war for control of the newspaper's parent company because they believed a rival co-owner was threatening its independent journalism.

In separate e-mails to the staff, H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest and Lewis Katz said Inquirer editor William K. Marimow was fired because he resisted meddling in newsroom matters by co-owner George E. Norcross III.

Their lawsuit to undo that Oct. 7 firing and get rid of publisher Robert J. Hall, who did it, is scheduled for a court hearing Wednesday.

"For any newspaper or media outlet to be credible, it must be viewed as truly independent and free of interference," Lenfest wrote. "This integrity is what is at stake in our lawsuit."

Norcross and Katz together make up the management committee that is to approve major decisions for Interstate General Media. Each has accused the other of interfering in Inquirer newsroom operations.

Friday's e-mails seemed to be direct responses to one sent to employees earlier in the week by Norcross and another partner, William P. Hankowsky, in which they denied any role in the editor's ouster.

In that memo, Norcross and Hankowsky said their allies in the ownership group were pursuing changes to increase revenues at The Inquirer, the Philadelphia Daily News, and Philly.com. The three media properties together have had declining income for a decade.

The two sides portrayed dramatically different visions of the financial health of the business. Norcross noted a "devastating drop" in print circulation from a little more than a decade ago, when 500,000 copies of The Inquirer and 200,000 copies of the Daily News sold each day - twice as many as sell now.

Katz called an increase of 8.9 percent in The Inquirer's daily circulation from September 2012 to September 2013 a "major turnaround." It was driven by an increase in subscriptions to a digital replica of the paper and to Inquirer.com, a website accessible only to subscribers.

Katz, a real estate and parking lot developer, and Lenfest, a philanthropist and former cable TV mogul, said the company needed to do a better job selling advertising. They said page views on Philly.com had dropped by about a third between 2009-10 and today. "Under Bob Hall's failed leadership, we have dropped to last place among the nation's top newspapers in overall and national advertising," Lenfest wrote.

Dan Fee, a spokesman for Norcross, an insurance company executive and Democratic Party leader in South Jersey, said the definition of web-page views used by the main research agency had changed. He also said the key criticisms in the Katz and Lenfest statements had "proven to be false."

Lenfest wrote of "countless examples of Mr. Norcross' interference," but the one he specified was the "pressuring of Bill Marimow to purge The Inquirer of opinion on the basis of research conducted by a polling firm with strong ties to his political organization."

The reference was to market research conducted in the summer of 2012 by Washington-based Greenberg, Quinlan & Rosner, which found that respondents placed the greatest premium on local news and were not motivated to purchase the paper by its editorials or columnists. The pollsters recommended reducing the editorial pages to once or twice a week. In September, the daily editorial section of The Inquirer was cut from two pages to one.

On Sept. 4, Katz e-mailed Norcross: "I asked Bill if you were responsible for the change in the opinion page and he said no he did it because he assumed Bob [Hall] wanted it done as a cost cut in accord with the poll." Hall sent copies of that e-mail and others to employees Nov. 1.

Jay Devine, a spokesman for Katz and Lenfest, said the September e-mail by Katz did not take into account what he said was an eight-month "campaign" of pressure on Marimow by Norcross. "In the end, Bill made a decision that was the lesser of several evils," Devine said.

In what has been a bitter and very public feud, even the task of e-mailing employees threatened to become a subplot.

Katz and Lenfest sent their e-mails to an IGM communications official around 5 p.m. Thursday to distribute to the company's nearly 1,800 workers. But the e-mails were held for 19 hours - until Hall, the publisher and a defendant in their lawsuit, could approve their release.

Fee said that approval process was company policy, and applied to Norcross' message as well. No change was made to the content of the Katz and Lenfest e-mails, he said.

On top of each, Hall wrote a note urging employees to review the content carefully, "judging it against, and contrasting it to, what has already been proven to be accurate and true." The Norcross-Hankowsky memo bore no such precede.


tfitzgerald@phillynews.com

215-854-2718

@tomfitzgerald

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