Friday, June 13, 2014

Tears and Fear At The Inky

By Ralph Cipriano

The new owner of The Philadelphia Inquirer, H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, wasn't back yet from his vacation in Vienna and Berlin.

While Lenfest was away, leaders of the Newspaper Guild of Greater Philadelphia, which represents approximately 500 of the newspaper's 1,800 employees, were trying to talk Drew Katz, son of the late Lewis Katz, out of his announced intention of selling his father's $16 million stake in the company to Lenfest.

Meanwhile, in the absence of leadership, Brian Tierney, Lenfest's newly appointed sales consultant, was holed up in former Publisher Bob Hall's office, and reportedly throwing his weight around like he was running the place.

"I saw more people crying yesterday," said Bill Ross, executive director of the Newspaper Guild, after he toured the newspaper.

According to Ross, three top executives at the newspaper quit yesterday because they couldn't deal with Tierney, or his lieutenant, Mark Frisby.

At the Inky, sold last month at a court-ordered auction for $88 million, they're running Associated Press and Washington Post stories on the front page. While inside the newspaper offices at 8th and Market, it's panic and uncertainty over what will happen next.

On Tuesday night, in response to a Big Trial story, Drew Katz announced he was selling out to Lenfest.

"Because of the turmoil of the last 10 days, I have  made a decision that it would be in the best interests of the Inquirer, Daily News and for me to sell my interest in the company," Drew Katz wrote in an email to local reporters.

Lewis Katz and Gerry Lenfest bought the Inky on March 27th for $88 million. Four days later, Lewis Katz was killed in a plane crash.

After his father's death, through intermediaries, Drew Katz agreed on a deal to sell Lenfest his father's share in the company for $16 million, according to a knowledgable source. That's the same $16 million that Lewis Katz had originally invested in the newspapers.

The sale between Drew Latz and Lenfest was supposed to go through Wednesday, but didn't. The people who know why aren't talking.

To the Newspaper Guild, that delay presented an opportunity.

"The deal's not consummated yet," Ross said. "Our hope is that Drew reconsiders selling his shares to Lenfest."

"We're trying to convince Drew Katz to stay involved here because of his expertise in advertising," Ross said. "He's a very successful businessman. We hope he sees his father's passion and huge investment."

Ross described Drew Katz  as the "best future hope to save the enterprise."

Katz, 42, is a Stanford University law school grad who runs his own national advertising firm in Cherry Hill. He did not respond to a request for comment.

The first person to resign yesterday was Hal Donnelly, director of circulation strategy at the Inquirer.

Donnelly had "a run-in with Frisby earlier in the day," Ross said. "He was basically telling people he couldn't work with Frisby."

Mark Frisby, a former Tierney lieutenant, was appointed by Lenfest as associate publisher for operations. Guild employees remember Frisby as the guy who, after they voted to delay taking a $25-a-week pay raise, accepted a $150,000 bonus and then drove to work in a brand new Maserati.

Donnelly's dispute with Frisby was over the running of an extra press at the newspaper's printing plant in Conshohocken. The extra press was needed to print more copies of the paper, to solve delivery problems, particularly with late papers.

Frisby, who, according to Ross, is all about cutbacks, canceled the extra press run and laid off the employees who worked that shift.

Donnelly, according to Ross, responded by quitting.

Neither Donnelly or Frisby could be reached for comment.

The next victim was Kim Parham, vice president of national advertising at the Inquirer and Daily News. Parham had been recruited from The New York Times by Lewis Katz and former owner George E. Norcross III, Ross said.

According to Ross, Tierney stepped into Parham's office and announced that starting immediately, she would be reporting to him. She said no she wouldn't and then she quit, Ross said.

Parham could not be reached for comment. Neither could Tierney, or Tierney's longtime spokesman, Jay Devine.

Donnelly and Parham gave their resignations to George P. Loesch, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Interstate General Media [IGM], the parent company that owned the Inquirer, Daily News and

Lenfest had asked Loesch to stay on during the transition between the old and new ownership. Loesch, however, declined to stay. Yesterday was his last day. So Loesch had three resignation letters to hand in before he left the building.

In just one day, new owner Lenfest had "lost three key positions in management," Ross said. "These are huge positions that make this company run."

"There's no direction right now, there's no leadership," Ross complained. Except for a power grab by Brian Tierney, who, according to Ross, is already "acting like he's the publisher."

In between dealing with the business side of the paper, Tierney ordered to run as the website's top story the black box news about a possible pilot error in the Lewis Katz plane crash.

Meanwhile, Lenfest was supposed to return from vacation yesterday afternoon and visit the Inky, but he never showed. That disappointed some reporters who were waiting to interview the new owner, presumably about his future plans for the newspaper.

While the Inky soap opera continues, one critic has publicly rebuked the newspaper for a perceived slip in local production.

The Echo Group, a "strategic communications firm" employed by Norcross during the Inky ownership wars, put out a couple of critical tweets this week.

On June 12th, the Echo Group tweeted, "Why are there 3 articles about Eric Cantor on page 1 and 2 of the Inquirer -- all from the Washington Post? Are we in the Beltway suddenly?"

The next day, on June 13th, The Echo Group tweeted, "11 AP stories, 2 from WaPo in Inky's front section not including blurbs (7 AP, 1 WaPo. Only 4 bylined by Inky. Should I just read NYT?"

Perhaps combat fatigue has set in.

One longtime employee said that people have been exhausted by the ongoing soap opera. It started last fall with the firing of Inquirer Editor Bill Marimow. That prompted the two feuding ownership factions to duke it out in courtrooms in two states. The legal battle climaxed with the court-ordered auction followed by the tragic death of Lewis Katz.

Lew Katz was seen as the champion of the Inky newsroom, where his longtime companion, Nancy Phillips presided as city editor. She has been on a leave of absence since the plane crash.

Phillips was last seen at the public funeral services for Lewis Katz. She sat behind the family, and was largely ignored by the numerous speakers. Only Marimow mentioned Phillips from the podium, as a colleague who had helped to hire him. Former Gov. Ed Rendell called out Phillips' name and blew her a kiss.

Lenfest didn't make the services; he was off in Europe. Lenfest is remembered by newsroom employees as the guy who threatened to close the joint if he didn't get the labor concessions he was seeking.

Lenfest was also the guy who, when he met with the Guild's executive board last year, promised he wouldn't bring back Tierney, after he listened to a litany of complaints about him.

Then, as his first move, Lenfest, not only brought back Tierney but Frisby as well. At this point, Lenfest probably wouldn't survive a no confidence vote.

No wonder people at the Inky are pinning their hopes on Drew Katz. They're hoping he'll remember his father's legacy and pick up the torch.

Meanwhile, Brian Tierney is busy setting one fire after another.