Thursday, December 5, 2013

More Meddling In Inky Newsroom

Hands-On Inky Owner Lewis Katz
By Ralph Cipriano
for Bigtrial.net

At The Philadelphia Inquirer on Tuesday, owner Lewis Katz raised eyebrows by sitting in on a morning news meeting attended by at least 10 editors. Katz, according to two sources, discussed a story that ran in that morning's paper about the surprise resignation of Peter Luukko, president of Comcast-Spectacor, the company that owns the Philadelphia Flyers.

Owners don't usually attend news meetings. Katz, however, has asserted previously in court that he has an "open door" to visit the Inky newsroom whenever he wants.

And Katz doesn't have to stop by the newsroom to influence news coverage. Last week, an Inky obit writer was informed by a funeral director that Katz had personally Ok'd an obituary to run in the paper; the funeral director claimed that Katz was a "personal friend" of a relative of the deceased. The obituary was for the father of actress and Philadelphia native Kim Delaney. The obit writer, concerned about editorial interference, reported the incident to the Newspaper Guild.

Both incidents occurred at a newspaper where all six new owners, including Katz, made a public pledge not to meddle in editorial operations. The same owners who are busy suing each other over allegations of past meddling, by recently filing three appeal briefs in Superior Court over a period of nine days.

When he testified in Common Pleas court last month, Katz was asked about the no-meddling pledge, and whether it "places a wall around the newsroom and tells the owners to stay out of the newsroom?"

"No, there's no wall, it's an open door," Katz replied. "You can walk in there as owners and talk to reporters and editors."

That's just what happened Tuesday at the morning news meeting of editors. It's a session usually held to discuss the stories that ran in that day's newspaper, and the stories that reporters are working on for the next day's paper. The meeting was attended by Marimow, Inquirer City Editor Nancy Phillips, who is Katz's girlfriend, and other editors.

Katz spoke about the Luukko story written by Inky reporter Bob Fernandez. It's not known what he said. When contacted on his cell phone, Katz responded, "Who is this," and said he would call back, but he didn't.

Maybe he had to attend the afternoon news meeting.

In response to Katz's visit to the news meeting, Dan Fee, a spokesman for the Norcross ownership faction, which comprises 4 of 6 feuding owners, said, "This is another example of why it is so important that the publisher be the one in control of the newsroom."

Friend of Lew's
Last week, Tim Dinan of the Dinan Funeral Home emailed Bonnie Cook, an Inky obituary writer on Nov. 30, about writing an obituary for John Delaney. "The family mentioned that the daughter Kim Delaney is personal friends with the owner of the paper, Mr. Lewis Katz," Dinan wrote. In his email, Dinan included Katz's cell phone number.

In another phone call to the obit writer, funeral director Chris Dinan told Cook, "Mr. Katz OKed it to go in."

Cook forwarded the notes from the funeral director  to Bill Ross, executive director of the Newspaper Guild. On Dec. 3, Ross replied, "I'm lost. Is this interference by one of the owners?"

"Yes," Cook responded. "It is an assigning editor's job to okay obits to go in, not an owner through a funeral director."

Can you imagine the cozy reception Katz receives when he visits that Inquirer news meeting, and says hello to his girlfriend, the city editor, or Marimow, the editor of the paper that his girlfriend handled the negotiations to hire?

Maybe it sheds some light on the disparate treatment Katz receives from our two daily newspapers.

On Jan. 11, Chris Brennan of the Daily News wrote a short 491-word story about 8th and Market as a potential location for a new casino. In the story, Brennan interviewed Ken Goldenberg, the developer leading the investors' group seeking the casino license. Brennan talked about how the Goldenberg Group owns 60 percent of two acres along Market Street. Then he writes: "Lewis Katz, a managing partner of the company that owns the Daily News, and philly.com, is a limited partner in Goldenberg, but is not involved in the casino application."

But when Inquirer columnist Karen Heller wrote a 687-word column Nov. 25th about Market East, "the gaping hole in Center City's success," she discusses the property at 8th and Market -- "a tract of failed dreams" gambling on "the crapshoot of a state casino license." But Heller doesn't mention Katz's interest. Neither does Inky business writer Chris Hepp in a 435-word story Dec. 2 on how to "jump-start East Market Street" that also discusses the land at 8th and Market.

There may be many legitimate reasons for both Inky writers not to mention Katz's interest. Maybe the writers put it in the story and some editor took it out. But if the Inky is going to be advocating for more development and more resources to be poured into East Market Street, and one of their owners stands to benefit, it just looks bad not to disclose that interest.

We now turn our attention to the battle of the legal briefs being fought in Superior Court.

In their filings, the majority ownership faction headed by George Norcross, the Democratic boss of South Jersey, claims that Katz  meddled in the newsroom to prevent the justifiable firing of Inquirer editor Bill Marimow. The appeal claims the newspaper is being irreparably harmed by Marimow's court-ordered reinstatement, because it will continue to allow Katz, acting through Marimow, to keep meddling in the newsroom.

The minority ownership faction headed by Katz counters that Marimow is doing a great job, and deserves to stay on. The minority faction charges that Publisher Bob Hall was meddling on behalf of Norcross when he fired Marimow. The Katz faction claims the Inquirer needs Marimow to stay on the job to prevent Norcross from doing any further meddling in the newsroom.

In a document filed Nov. 26th in Superior Court, the Norcross faction is asking for "special relief in the nature of a request for expedited appeal."

"At stake in this appeal is the editorial and journalistic independence of the Philadelphia Inquirer ... one of the oldest, most influential and widely-circulated newspapers in our Commonwealth."

"On Oct. 7, 2013, the Publisher of the Inquirer discharged the editor for failing to implement critical journalistic and editorial measures designed to halt the downward spiral of the Inquirer, and lead it into the new age of successful print and digital media," the appeal states.

The appeal says that Common Court Pleas Judge Patricia McInerney wrongly decided that editor Marimow could only be fired by two owners, Norcross and Katz, who sit on a management committee. Judge McInerney made her ruling "despite the fact that both Mr. Katz and Mr. Norcross (and the other owners) expressly pledged in IGM's governance agreement -- and to the employees of the paper and the public at large -- that they would not 'attempt to directly or indirectly control or influence any of the editorial or journalistic policies and decisions" of the newspaper, the appeal says.

Interstate General Media [IGM] is the parent company that owns the Inquirer, Daily News and philly.com website.

The appeal asks the Superior Court to overturn Judge McInerney's decision, "thereby upholding the proper governance of the Inquirer and restoring the public's confidence that the editorial and journalistic decisions of the Inquirer will remain free from the influence of its owners.' "

"Every day that Mr. Marimow serves as the Inquirer's editor endangers the paper's chances of survival," the appeal states. "The Inquirer and its newsroom are currently operating under a cloud of uncertainty." The appeal claims that Inky publisher Bob Hall had the right to fire Marimow, according to journalism tradition, and that the Inky's no-medling clause prevented Katz from having a vote on whether to fire Marimow.

In response, on Dec. 3, lawyers for the Katz faction filed a "memorandum of law in opposition" to the Norcross faction's application for special relief. The memorandum said without Judge McInerney's decision to reinstate Marimow, Norcross, with the help of publisher Bob Hall, "would have continued Norcross's campaign to control the operations of The Philadelphia Inquirer, and to run roughshod over the protections against such unilateral control" included in the company's limited liability agreement.

The memorandum of law said that after Judge McInerney ruled that Marimow had to be immediately reinstated, "Marimow returned to applause and a strong showing of support from the Inquirer's newsroom."

Did they expect his underlings to boo him?

The memorandum states that "far from championing journalistic independence," Publisher Hall was "merely carrying out Norcross's wishes and directives, subverting the voting/veto rights of management committee member Katz. The "clear purpose" of the non-interfernce policy "was to prevent the owners from interfering with news content," the memorandum states.

The memorandum said the accusation that Marimow is irreparably harming the Inquirer does not take into account "The Inquirer's improved performance under Marmow's direction." The memorandum states that Marimow went along with every change Hall wanted to make, with the exception of terminating "three distinguished and award-winning editors, who were clearly targeted for firing because they had antagonized someone in Norcross's family."

It's a clear shot at Lexie Norcross, the 26-year-old daughter of George and corporate VP who oversees digital operations.

While Marimow was editor, the memorandum states, "paid online circulation nearly doubled," Sunday digital circulation "soared 72.5 percent, and the Inquirer's total daily circulation rose to 258,127, an 8.9 percent increase.

In response, on Dec. 4, team Norcross filed a "reply in support of" their request for an expedited appeal. They stated in their reply that the Inquirer editor is "a key player with respect to the paper's editorial and journalistic policies and decisions."

"Thus, the power to influence and control the Inquirer's editor is the power to influence and control its editorial and journalistic policies and decisions," the reply states. Team Norcross continues to assert that the owners no-meddling pledge prevents the management committee composed of Norcross and Katz from "having the power to interfere with the firing of the editor."

Judge McInerney, the reply states, never addressed this issue. The reply says that during the recent court battle in Common Pleas court, owner Katz and another owner allied with him, H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, "admitted" that the no-meddling pledge "reaches beyond 'news content' to the very 'operations of the newsroom.' "

"Surely then, controlling and influencing the editor, the person in charge of the newsroom's operations, would conflict with the" no-meddling pledge, the reply states. By allowing the Inky editor to serve at the pleasure of "a single member" of IGM's management committee, the reply states, Judge McInerney's decision "calls into doubt the journalistic independence and integrity of a paper that can ill afford such questions."

12 comments:

  1. For a contrary view, see frumped.org

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  2. All is well at the Inky according to the Frumpster. As long as Billy Marimow is in that editor's chair. All is well.

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    1. http://rfrump.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=1177&action=edit&message=6&postpost=v2 makes some concessions.

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  3. So Frumpy, let me get this straight. It's OK with you if Lew Katz sits in on news meetings. It's OK if Katz approves obits in advance. It's OK if the Inky reports about 8th and Market and never mentions Katz owns property there. All that's OK as long as it's not Norcross, right?

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    1. I would be much happier to take with someone who has the integrity to include a real name and ask a real question based on what I wrote rather than a sophomoric debating club question based on misstatement and illogical extensions.
      But yes, I'd put my money on Marimow, for sure, versus "Anonymous." What I've asked Ralph to do is 1.) identify the background of Big Trial. 2.) When he writes about the Inquirer,note his history.
      His emphasis here certainly is pro-Norcross in my opinion. I respect point of view reporting, and have no problem if he has a dog in this fight. I just think readers have a right. to know where the barking is coming from.
      Same goes for you.
      The concept that Marimow is somehow the problem with "meddling' beggars belief. The idea that the newsroom somehow was intimidated into applauding for Bill is just...incredible.
      Look, good reporters, including Ralph, run at right angles to everything. That's great. So is a good, free interchange of ideas. Preferably, signed.
      I really do not understand why Ralph has taken just the one side he has taken given the personal stands he has made in the past. The fact that the Inquirer is imperfect and yes, perhaps Marimow too, does not mean one abandons a superb,ethical editor and rush into the arms of a discredited publisher and a Norcross web strategy that is among the worst in the business.
      Big Trial regularly has gone beyond the trial to dislodge nuggets of mini-scandal within the newsroom. Why not cover the larger picture of the mistakes that Hall is making? And the Norcross web team?
      Seriously would be interested. I think Ralph does some great writing and reporting and if Big Trial is indeed giving him a free shot at this, then I would love for him to follow up and look at the web stuff. It's directly related to how well the business is being waged.
      Lose this battle on behalf of one of the best news editors in the business, and you are going down the road of link-bait and you will be interviewing the owners of Flippy the Sleepy Squirrel. Is that OK with you?

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    2. Ralph rightly called me out for not acknowledging some of these points, and I’ll concede he was right. Those aren’t good developments and if I ignore them, I’m no better than… well, no better than other blogs that state one side of an issue and ignore the other. Frumped.org

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    3. Ralph and the folks at BigTrial also make some points on Frump.org in response to my posts.
      Here's the deal. Has Ralph made some points here? Sure. Undeniably. But to my mind it seems as if he has drilled some capillaries and then shouted, "Blood."
      The mention of Katz and editors' love lives has grown tiresome and salacious and so far from what I can see reveals that Philadelphia may be a little like France. Get me rewrite! This Page 6 type of treatment works. Once. Not every day.
      The idea that an editor or reporter would have helped recruit Marimow or some other editor may be a scandal to Ralph, but it's actually rewarded at most corporations with cash. I've helped hire my boss before. It's called recruiting. It only sounds weird in a context where it is hyped to sound weird. In the rest of the world, it is rewarded with bonuses.
      And then there are more serious areas where questions are raised, the names of reporters darkened, but no answers are given. Were the stories that did not mention Katz suppressed in some way? Were the editors intimidated? We really don't know. The questions are not answered. The reporters and sub-editors are named and left twisting in the wind, with the implication that they either feared reprisals from Katz or that Katz had mention of Katz outright killed. Which is it? Report it out. Maybe it is an artery. My guess is it's another capillary.
      As to the obit, as I've said before, as reported, owner sponsored obits are wrong. But honestly I cannot count all the funeral directors over the years who told me they knew my boss, the owner of the paper, the wife of the owner, the brother of my editor. It's standard funeral director blather that you either ignore or finesse. This just seems like routine problem over-produced into a mini-scandal.
      The truly bothersome approach here is that Ralph's coverage seems to comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted -- the reverse of the old canard.
      The act of commission here was not Marimow-Katz. The aggression against good news standards was on the Norcross side with the firing of Marimow pretty clearly connected to Lexie Norcross's sloppy efforts to run free political opinion pieces and tweet her approval of Norcross-backed pols. Yet Ralph portrays Norcross as the victim and Katz as an aggressor. I'm not sure if Ralph is being played here or not, but this is completely out of the Roger Ailes school of political framing and "stealing the story."
      Given all that, Ralph's coverage is as if the Washington Post, upon hearing about Watergate, did an exhaustive investigation of why the Democratic Party National Headquarters had such lousy security that they got broken into.
      It's not that this wasn't a story. It just wasn't the big story.
      The big story is how badly Norcross is messing up the web -- and how criticism of that lead to the firing of an editor who is among the best in the business.
      I'd love to see some of that on Big Trial just to balance it out.

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  4. I know everyone involved here, and personally, I think Marimow should not have been fired. It was a stupid mistake, whoever did it. That said, Frump has zero credibility on this issue. And Ralph ought to disclose his past with the paper. Frump could gain credibility by challenging Ralph's facts as opposed to challenging him personally. But I suspect Frump has no ammo.

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  5. Is there anybody out there who doesn't know I sued the Inky back in 1998? It's been written about by the Washington Post, NY Times, Philadelphia Weekly, City Paper, Editor and Publisher, American Journalism Review, National Catholic Reporter, etc.I've given interviews to everybody under the sun. I wrote a chapter about my lawsuit in Courtroom Cowboy, a 2008 biography of Jim Beasley Sr., which inspired another round of publicity about the case. In my opinion, it's been written about to death.

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  6. Anonymous -- All the facts are on the table. Ralph and Big Trial have answered concerns I've had. I've conceded he had some good points to make and Katz needs to step carefully. I don't think any arteries have been drilled. There is no doubt that Ralph has contributed honestly and passionately to the debate over good newspapering.

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  7. Kumbaya y'all. Hehehe.

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  8. Thanks to Ralph for filling in one of the big blanks in the Inquirer's own coverage: how the Katz-Phillips-Marimow triad functions in the newsroom. I hasten to add that I am no fan of Mr. Norcross' faction either. I endorse the views of Tom Livingston made on LinkedIn, and the need for a more altruistic ownership.

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