Monday, December 22, 2014

Revenge Of The Norcrosses

Jimmy Kempski/Photo: Thomas Carroll
By Ralph Cipriano
for Bigtrial.net

The big black billboard on the Walt Whitman Bridge promotes the new sportswriter for PhillyVoice.com: "All Birds. No Bull. With Jimmy Kempski."

That's the same Jimmy Kempski who used to be an Eagles blogger for philly.com. He jumped ship to join the rival media startup brought to you by George E. Norcross III and his daughter Lexie.

Just seven months after they lost the court-ordered auction of Interstate General Media [IGM] -- the parent company that owns The Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News and philly.com -- the Norcrosses are back on the local media stage playing with house money.

Norcross, the Democratic boss of South Jersey, and two business partners, William P. Hankowsky and Joseph E. Buckelew, had invested a total of $35 million in IGM. The Norcross ownership faction walked away from the May 27th auction with $41.7 million after expenses; a net profit of $6.7 million. No wonder the ads for PhillyVoice.com brag that the new venture is a "well-funded media startup serving the Philadelphia and South Jersey region."

It's a stark contrast between media rivals. Over at PhillyVoice.com, George's daughter Lexie, the new managing director, is busy hiring. But at rival IGM,  owned by Norcross's former business partner, H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, they're laying off 21 senior employees in a new round of buyouts that's the subject of a grievance filed by the Newspaper Guild.

Lenfest, who usually stonewalls this blog, could not be reached for comment. Neither could Inquirer Editor Bill Marimow.

In a Nov. 17th interview with USA Today, Lenfest declared he was feeling "motivated and excited" and "having a great time" as the new IGM owner and Inky publisher.

At the same time he was talking about rejuvenation, however, the 84-year-old philanthropist was seeking to jettison 21 of his most senior IGM employees.

Anyone else see a contradiction there? But before you can say age discrimination, the newsroom buzz phrase is that management is seeking "a different skill set" with new hires. If they're younger and cheaper, so much the better.

In the absence of official comment, one veteran newsroom staffer griped that "Gerry was funding the operation" at PhillyVoice because Lenfest and his former business partner, the late Lew Katz, overpaid for IGM by bidding $88 million.

In the wake of overpaying, the bosses at IGM were trying to reduce payroll costs by initially offering buyouts to employees with 30 years of experience. Eighteen journalists in the Inky newsroom signed up for the deal, including five photographers. Only one staffer at the Daily News took the buyout, as did a couple of financial employees at philly.com.

The buyout offer on the table was 40 weeks of salary and six months of medical benefits. At IGM, however, buyouts have always been treated as layoffs. That meant that under the collective bargaining agreement, the 21 departing staffers were also entitled to five weeks of severance pay  But Lenfest supposedly rejected that idea, saying why should I give these people an extra five weeks of pay if I'm already giving them 40 weeks' pay to take a hike?

That prompted the Newspaper Guild to file a grievance over the denial of the extra five weeks of severance pay to the 21 departing employees, which amounts to some $100,000. The grievance is headed for arbitration.

At IGM lately, a lot of labor disputes are turning into grievances since the unexplained departure last June of Chris Bonanducci, IGM's Vice President of Human Resources. Bonanducci did not respond to an email seeking comment.

IGM also lacks a company spokesman. Jonathan P. Tevis, former IGM manager of Public Relations & Events, left last month to become director of external relations at PhillyVoice.

It's quite a trend. The list of nine former IGM employees crossing over to PhillyVoice.com includes: Bob McGovern, former executive producer, news, at philly.com; Matt Romanoski, former executive producer for sports at philly.com; Leah R. Kauffman, former executive entertainment and lifestyle producer at philly.com; Matt Mullin, former sports editor at phillycom; Rich Hofmann Jr., the son of the Daily News sports columnist who also covered sports at the Daily News; Kim Parham, former national head of sales for IGM; Hal Donnelly, former IGM circulation director; and Jeff Douglass, former IGM product manager.

The exodus has left the one veteran newsroom staffer who blamed Lenfest for funding PhillyVoice to declare that so many people wouldn't be leaving during the holidays to join a media startup if they were being treated right.

Management has "never been more dysfunctional" because most of IGM's new senior managers have "no idea" what they're doing, the veteran staffer complained.

Another veteran newsroom staffer, however, who's generally more supportive of IGM management dismissed the dysfunction talk as "the same old shit" usually heard around contract time [the current Newspaper Guild contract is set to expire Feb. 9th].

There are 200 journalists left at the Inquirer; quite a drop from the glory days of the early 1990s, when the Inky had 600 staffers under former editor Gene Roberts. In the newsroom, people are working harder than ever and getting paid less. In an era of cutbacks and givebacks, every staffer has to go on furlough for two weeks of unpaid leave every year.

Merry Christmas.

Compensation is one thing, the newsroom loyalist conceded, but the current IGM management is still pretty serious about the news.

Over at PhillyVoice, Lexie Norcross, herself a former IGM VP of digital operations and corporate services, denied she was raiding her former employer.

"We've posted over 25 job positions and got 250 resumes," Norcross said. She's hiring from all over. Including Frank Burgos, the new managing editor at PhillyVoice. Burgos is a former news editor at the Burlington County Times who was also former editor of the Philadelphia Daily News editorial page.

Lexie Norcross maintains she harbors no ill will toward her former employer.

"IGM is home to many mentors, friends and former colleagues," she wrote in an email. "I will forever be grateful to so many of those individuals who were a significant influence on my earliest days and experiences working in the media sector. I only wish the company, Mr. Lenfest, and their many dedicated employees, nothing but success."

Kempski was similarly diplomatic.

"Philly.com treated me tremendously," he wrote. But Kempski's move was about loyalty.

As opposed to being "a classically trained journalist," Kempski wrote in an email, he worked in sales for 10-plus years before "Lexie Norcross and Matt Romanoski took a chance on me."

"I've always felt very trusting of them, and loyal to them," he wrote about his former bosses. "When the opportunity to work for them arose once again, this time as the lead Eagles writer at PhillyVoice, it was a no-brainer for me."

Kempski was the first guy to report that the Eagles were planning to release wide receiver DeSean Jackson, last seen torching the Eagles secondary as a Redskin to cripple the Birds' playoff chances.

PhillyVoice is still hiring. On their website they're seeking an ad ops manager, desktop support specialist, sales assistant and web curator. The "dynamic new media company in Philadelphia" is also seeking "experienced writers and web surfers to assemble a daily collection of riveting web content for our readers."

Skeptics gripe that there is currently no model for a regional news website that's making money. So even before the new website at PhillyVoice goes up, people are wondering whether the upstarts will be able to succeed economically. Or will the Norcrosses end up squandering every cent they made at the IGM auction?

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