Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Owners Brawl Over Inky

Nancy
By Ralph Cipriano
for Bigtrial.net

The new owners of The Philadelphia Inquirer may put out a boring newspaper, but they sure know how to stage an entertaining brawl.

Maybe it's time to outfit the new Inky newsroom in the old Strawbridge building with TV cameras, and turn the battle over the city's comatose paper of record into a reality TV series.

Nancy Phillips and Lexie Norcross would look great on camera as the faces of the two rival ownership factions slugging it out every day in the newsroom. It would be far more interesting than having to read the paper of record.

Lexie
Meanwhile, in Common Pleas Court this morning, a couple of battling owners, Lewis Katz and H.F. "Gentleman Gerry" Lenfest, showed up to demonstrate their support for fired Inky Editor Bill Marimow, who's hired his own lawyer because he's tired of getting "smeared" by the mudslinging.

George Norcross, the rival owner presumably behind the firing and alleged smearing of Marimow, let his lawyers do the talking, as he was nowhere in sight.

Who will win the slugfest? On one side, we have Katz, who made a fortune in parking, banking and billboards and used to own the New Jersey Nets, and his longtime companion, Nancy Phillips. She's a 40-something former investigative reporter who considers Marimow her mentor and is now the city editor of the Inquirer. The joke around the Inky newsroom was that after Katz bought the paper, it was Nancy who hired Marimow as editor.

On the other side, it's George Norcross, the Democratic boss of South Jersey, and his daughter, Lexie. She's the 25-year-old VP of digital operations and corporate services who runs philly.com., the free website that prefers trashy stories about Miley Cyrus and Jenna Jameson to dull Inky investigative stories and editorials. It's the Norcross faction that wants to put Marimow out to pasture. The former editor of the Inquirer may be a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, but to the Norcross faction, he's a print dinosaur stuck in a 1970s tarpit.

One veteran political handicapper who knows all the players says his money's on Norcross, because he's the better in-fighter. "This is not his kind of battle," the handicapper said of Katz. "This is over pussy and bullshit, not money."

Eleven reporters showed up to watch what was billed as a status conference in Courtroom 630 at City Hall. Katz and Lenfest have filed suit in Philadelphia, claiming that Inquirer Publisher Bob Hall, acting on behalf of Norcross, exceeded his own authority when he fired Marimow. In their suit, Katz and Lenfest want to reinstate Marimow and fire Hall.

In response, Norcross filed a countersuit in Delaware, saying that Katz has repeatedly broken a pledge not to meddle in the Inquirer newsroom. The countersuit opens up a territorial dispute over which jurisdiction takes precedence -- Delaware, where Interstate General Media [IGM], the ownership group that bought the papers for $55 million last year is incorporated, or Pennsylvania, where IGM does business.

A few minutes after everybody showed up for court, Judge Patricia A. McInerney summoned ten lawyers back to her chambers for a private confab. About 15 minutes in, the assembled mob of reporters got restless and protested to a court clerk that the meeting going on behind closed doors should be held in public.

"That's what happens in Philly," Katz was overheard telling spectators. They go in the back room and have it out. Then, "they come out and put it on the record and everybody goes home," Katz said.

Sure enough, after another 15 minutes of back room dealing, the judge reappeared and announced that on Monday morning, everyone would return for oral arguments over which court had jurisdiction over the ownership battle.

Some veteran Inky staffers and alumni showed up to watch the proceedings. People such as Murray Dubin, Sharon Wohlmuth, Steve Seplow, Dan Biddle, as well as myself. It was like an AARP meeting. Some 500 people, including many Inky alums, have signed a petition to bring Marimow back as editor.

Afterwards, Marimow's lawyer was the only legal combatant who spoke to the media.

Katz and Lenfest have "pure motives" in this venture, asserted lawyer Bill Chadwick. They invested their money to see that Philadelphia continues to have an independent newspaper like the Inquirer to serve as a government watchdog. It's Bill Marimow's "life mission" to edit that newspaper. End of story.

In the Marimow version, it's the Norcrosses and their corporate lackey, Bob Hall, who threaten the sanctity of independent journalism in Philadelphia by whacking Marimow. On the Norcross side,
Bill
however, it's Bill Marimow, propped up by that meddling Katz and girlfriend Nancy, who are standing in the way of profitability and the revival of a boring newspaper.

In a lengthy Oct. 7 email to the other owners, Publisher Bob Hall outlines the enemies of progress.

"For many months now [associate publisher] Mike Lorenca and I have been working to improve our company in all areas including the quality of the product (meeting readers needs) that we publish, to make the business more profitable and to improve the working relationship among all departments," Hall wrote.

"We have attempted to accomplish these tasks through various means," Hall writes, "but have been frustrated by the direct interference of Lewis Katz (and by extension through his longtime companion Nancy Phillips) in the editorial process and management of the newsroom and preventing us from implementing what we believe are the appropriate changes. The Katz/Phillips interference, unfortunately, continues to this day."

Next, Bob "Change Agent" Hall outlines his vision of progress. He wants to redesign the paper, put more local news on the front page, expand the local news section and eliminate police-blotter type of stories. He wants more coverage of the Pennsylvania suburbs (yawn) and of course  improved business coverage "without additional resources."

Then Hall suggests whacking some "FOBs," or Friends of Bill.

He wants to eliminate Tom McNamara as Sunday editor, whack Dan Biddle as political editor, and replace him with two new suburban Pennsylvania reporters. He wants to whack another editor, Hai Do, and replace him with two more suburban reporters. He wants to bust Jersey editor Cindy Henry down to reporter and reduce her pay.

Hall, of course, had to know what Marimow's reaction was going to be.

"Bill followed through on most of the items and presented a plan to move forward which has been acted on, except for any personnel changes which Bill has refused to implement even after several discussions," Hall wrote.

Hall went into more detail about what he didn't like about certain FOBs and why they deserved to be whacked.

"First, I would have Tom McNamara retire and eliminate his position," Hall wrote. "I have had conversation with Bill about Tom for over a year. He (McNamara) is deputy managing editor for Sunday and Sports.  The Sunday (edition) is our most important edition and needs the most change. Tom has a reputation for being a bit arrogant, shows favoritism, dismissive and [is] certainly not a change agent ... Bill does not like to make tough personnel decisions."

"Dan Biddle would also leave, who is a longtime friend of Bill's and a great journalist and Pulitzer prize winner," Hall wrote. "However, he is not a good editor and one who does not have the respect of the staff. Bill will defend this. Dan is very much status quo and operates at one speed and always is challenging change. Comes across as a loner and appears disorganized ... I would replace this position with two new suburban PA reporters. Dan is one of 10 editors for metro coverage and 51 reporters, which is my experience is a very high ratio."

In an Aug. 7 meeting with Marimow, Hall said, the editor once again held up the forces of progress.

"Despite our clear direction to Marimow, on Aug. 7, 2013, Lewis Katz again directly interjected himself in newsroom operations and editorial process by seeking to block the recommended firings of Tom McNamara and Dan Biddle," Hall wrote. "I responded to Lewis Katz that day advising that the hiring and firing of editorial staff was, historically and within the industry, the responsibility of the publisher."

"In short, what it comes down to is that Marimow does not want to make the changes and is relying on the interference by Lewis Katz to accomplish this goal," Hall wrote.

"In short, Marimow is exhibiting now the same traits that caused his termination from other editorial positions that he held," Hall wrote. "Empowered by the interference of Katz and Phillips in the newsroom and in the editorial process, Marimow has and continues to thwart changes and initiatives necessary for the success (and survival for that matter) of the newspapers."

Hall accused Marimow of leaking a story about an impending plan to cut the Inquirer's editorial pages by 50 percent.

"In fact, the recent leaking of the false story that the current ownership directed the consolidation of the Op-Ed pages from two to one is illustrative of the total loss of control and oversight that Marimow as editor is expected to exercise," Hall wrote.

Hall also accuses Marimow of leaking to the newsroom the new owners' decision to give Gov. Tom Corbett, a frequent target of Inky criticism, his own column on philly.com. Holy politically incorrect! This had to offend a room full of liberal Democrats.

"This demonstrates that Marmimow is quite actively using the newsroom, and the newspaper itself, to inappropriately advance his causes," Hall wrote. "Marimow has been both slow and piecemeal implementing local content changes, despite recent Scarborough reports that we lost 24 percent of our readers in the last year."

Hall claimed that Marimow didn't have the loyalty of the troops.

"Marimow does not have the support of most of the newsroom in spite of what Nancy Phillips says," Hall wrote. "The informal nickname (from the rank and file) for several staffers is FOB, Friends of Bill. The Guild constantly gets complaints about favoritisms and operations in the newsroom from their members."

Hall faulted Marimow for not being on board with philly.com and "our digital strategy."

"Marimow fought this initiative the entire way and constantly spends time challenging it," Hall wrote. "He has expressed to staff and others that he believes the strategy is wrong."

It sure doesn't make sense for the Inquirer. Right now, Inky and Daily News stories are given away for free on philly.com, while those same stories are buried behind paywalls on inquirer.com and phillydailynews.com.

Must have been a plan developed by the Norcrosses.

"Marimow is not and will never be the change that we need at the Inquirer to turn around the circulation decline and grow our company," Hall concluded. He quotes a 2009 Philly mag story about former Inky publisher Brian Tierney: 'In two years, Marimow has made no dramatic changes to the paper's coverage ....  seems more interested in plumping the Inquirer's institutional grandiosity -- than fostering growth'  ... With his staffing decisions, Marimow seems more interested in 'rebuilding the newspaper of 1978, rather than forging the news organization of 2015.' "

"The same could be said today after his 17 months tenure," Hall concludes. Hall then turned his attention to Nancy Phillips and Lewis Katz. Hall griped that Marimow frequently held meetings with Katz and Phillips, "the content of which was rarely, if ever, discussed with me."

Katz gave permission to Marimow to hire former Inky columnist Clark DeLeon as a free-lancer, Hall complained to the other owners. Katz also authorized Marimow to hire a consultant for computer-assisted reporting, as well as hire more staffers because Marimow told Katz he need them, Hall wrote.

"Nancy Phillips, with whom Lewis Katz has a personal relationship, was appointed assistant to publisher as Lewis Katz's point person and transferred from newsroom," Hall wrote. "However, she stayed very close to the newsroom and challenged decisions impacting it. Even recently, Nancy sent an email to some of her staffers which said in part, 'that even as city editor, I will keep a heavy hand in the business affairs of the company.' "

"There was always a strong implication that Nancy Phillips and Lewis Katz were and continue to be involved in the newsroom discussions and operations," Hall wrote. "Bill Marimow has implied many times that Lewis Katz will protect him."

Tune in again on Monday, when both sides, with Marimow still held hostage, square off again in Common Pleas Court.

9 comments:

  1. Nancy is a good reporter and classy person, but it only makes sense that problems are going to arise when a staffer is dating an owner, and I wonder why media outlets during coverage of the sale did not explore this potential conflict despite widepread knowledge. This story additionally offers a look at another frustrating problem at the paper: that insiders always get ahead and are protected. The comments Hall made about some of the editors are dead-on accurate, and it was always amazing to me how at the paper there could be editors and reporters that everyone thought were causing problems but for some mysterious reason management protected. Meanwhile, you see talented and hardworking reporters get canned or just kind of pushed aside.

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  2. What happened to the original "Pussy & Bullshit" headline?

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  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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    1. Anon...I actually DO care as I used to love to read the daily paper...now the Inquirer, sadly, is inconsequential. Thank you for your interesting entry. (I thought that the "anonymous" that doesn't care was asking about the 'pussy' headline when he implied that he did not care about the thread in the first place).

      Delete
    2. Led me to Jim Romenesko's blog, too

      Delete

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