By Ralph Cipriano
Sometimes you can conduct an exhaustive nationwide search for a talented top executive and never realize that the perfect candidate is right under your nose.
Or in the case of H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, that ideal candidate is staring back at you in the mirror.
After Lenfest and the late Lew Katz won the May 27th auction to buy the Inquirer, Daily News and philly.com for the inflated price of $88 million, Katz introduced Lenfest as interim publisher of the Inquirer. And then Lenfest announced that his first order of business was to find a new publisher.
Lenfest was quoted in the Inquirer as telling employees that he already had identified five potential candidates and that he expected the hiring process to take several months. But it didn't take that long.
In the interim, for the past couple months, Lenfest's name has appeared at the top of the Inky masthead alongside the title of interim publisher. Last Tuesday, "interim" was dropped from the title and Lenfest simply became publisher.
There was no public announcement, no installation ceremony. No smoke signals emanating from 8th and Market. Just the dropping of one word, interim, from the masthead. Talk about anticlimactic.
Today, an announcement from Lenfest went out to all employees with a tag of high importance.
The email began: Interstate General Media Proprietor and Publisher H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest announced today that effective Sept. 10, Eric Ulken will join IGM as Executive Director of Digital Strategy for Philly.com and the company's other digital news properties.
Attention Jonathan P. Tevis, the new company spokesman who sent out the announcement from Lenfest: in the news business this is known as burying the lead.
The news story was the big guy at the top of the masthead, not some new digital guy at philly.com.
When this was called to Tevis's attention, he responded in an email by saying "that question would be answered best by Mr. Lenfest himself." Lenfest, however, could not immediately be reached for comment.
Back when the former owners of the Inky were feuding, Lenfest sent out a Nov. 8, 2013 email to all IGM employees saying the company needed to "attract new readers which in turn attracts new advertisers."
"To that end, I am committed to finding the best new publisher available," Lenfest wrote. "One who can effectively increase our advertising revenue which is now at the bottom of our peers and our circulation online and in print while also supporting the principle of independent journalism."
Apparently the one guy who can do all that is 84-year-old Gerry Lenfest, former cable TV guy.
When the hedge funds used to own the Inky, there was talk of local ownership that would protect the newspapers as a public trust. There was a solemn pledge taken by all the owners to refrain from interfering in the operations of the newsroom.
Gerry Lenfest doesn't play by those rules.
First, he chucked the no-meddling pledge. Then, as one of his first big decisions, he decided to kill an Inky story that looked into allegations that two Pulitzer Prize winning Daily News reporters may have screwed up a federal investigation of rogue cops.
Lenfest also muzzled Daily News reporters and editors, preventing them from defending themselves.
Not everybody is a fan of the censorship imposed by the new regime.
About the killed Inky story, Daily News columnist Stu Bykofsky wrote on Sunday, "It was ordered to be not published by Gerry Lenfest, who owns both papers. I think killing the story (even while I might question the Inquirer's motives) was a mistake and a consideration not normally extended to those outside our adjoining newsrooms."
"I also think the Daily News not responding, and having the reporters not respond, is a mistake," Bykofsky wrote. "Get it out and let the chips fall where they may, that's how I feel ... Not publishing the 'expose' unless it was libelous ... makes the Daily News and the reporters look like they have something to hide."
Stu is one hundred percent right here. The staffs of both newspapers should be turned loose to let it rip on this story of why the feds didn't prosecute the cops accused in the Daily News's "Tainted Justice" series.
It's called journalism.
Whatever the feds have on the two reporters should be laid out in print. If it's b.s. tell us why. Let the Daily News defend itself; let the Daily News keep reporting. Let us know whatever the Inky's got. It sure beats a coverup.
Meanwhile the story is not going away. If the allegations against the reporters are down on paper we're going to read about it somewhere. Just not in the Inquirer or the Daily News.
That's called giving away the franchise, and leaving your fate in the hands of some other news organization.
And what about making yourself publisher and not telling anybody about it?
Hey Gerry, you're in the news business. This whole messy battle over who would own this town's only two daily newspapers was all duked out in public and in the courts, remember? Why not make a public announcement that you're the new publisher and maybe call a press conference and tell us what you're planning to do?
Nope, that's not the way they're going to play it. On Tuesday morning, a spokesperson released this canned statement on behalf of Lenfest:
"Since the sale of the company, I've held the title of Interim Publisher as I took a deeper dive into the business," the statement said. "After more than two months in that role, I wanted to make the title permanent. I'm enjoying this role as the company continues to make big strides in building a winning culture by assembling a great team of journalists and executives. With all this said, I remain committed to recruiting another senior executive to lead day-to-day operations, and I've been actively working to do so."
At the bottom of the statement from Lenfest, his spokesman wrote, "Note: Gerry Lenfest will not be available for interviews. This statement will serve as his comment. Thank you, Jonathan."
So there you have it folks. An imperial new publisher with a license to meddle who doesn't see himself as accountable.
And a couple of newspapers apparently engaging in coverups.
Newspaper journalism in Philadelphia; what a mess.