PHILADELPHIA – Philanthropist H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest has given away most of his $1.2 billion fortune, but he believes his earlier gifts will “pale in comparison” to his work to enrich Philadelphia’s largest newspapers.
Lenfest, 84, became the sole owner of The Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News this week, ending a turbulent year marked by a bitter feud among investors, a court-ordered buyout, and the plane crash death of co-owner Lewis Katz.
He claims to have no regrets, even as he becomes the last man standing.
“Of all the other things I’ve been involved in, they pale in comparison to the opportunity of placing the newspapers in the right hands, and bringing back the editorial excellence of the Inquirer and the Daily News,” Lenfest told The Associated Press on Wednesday. “If we can (do that), … then I feel that I’ve done something that I feel good about.”
The three top editors at the company’s Philly.com website quit en masse on Monday, citing an unclear digital strategy and the chaos of the revolving-door ownership. Lenfest pledged to find a top-notch leader to develop the digital operations, where, according to court testimony, revenues have been flat since at least 2006.
“I do think that Philly.com has got to find its own course in the digital world,” Lenfest said. “It’s got to find its way, and not just be an appendage of the newspapers.”
The departure of Philly.com’s top news, sports and entertainment editors followed the loss of several business executives who resigned after the May 26 auction, when Lenfest and Katz beat out rival owner George Norcross, the powerful New Jersey Democrat. Katz, 72, was among seven people killed five days later when his airplane crashed while attempting takeoff in Massachusetts.
“I think it’s much more stabilized than that would indicate,” said Lenfest, who built his fortune amassing cable TV stations that later merged with Comcast. “I think the first step is to find a new publisher” for the Inquirer.
Katz’s son, Drew, has dropped plans to assume his father’s role, leaving Lenfest alone at the helm. Lenfest spent $42 million last week to buy out the Norcross faction, and more this week for Katz’s $16 million stake. He had also chipped in $10 million to help buy the company in 2012.
“I didn’t ask for this opportunity … (but) I think it’s extremely important,” Lenfest said. “The newspaper is the prime source of information in the region. Its investigative reporting is not equaled by any other form of media.”
Lenfest, by his count, has given away $1.1 billion of his estate. The sum includes major gifts to his alma maters, Columbia and Washington and Lee universities; Lenfest Foundation scholarships for disadvantaged students; and gifts to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and other cultural institutions.
Drew Katz, for one, believes the newspaper’s future might best be left in one person’s hands, especially after the stalemate that stemmed from his father’s 50-50 power split with Norcross.
“If I have learned anything from my dad, it is that sometimes in life decisions need to be made that are not about financial gain but in the best interest of all,” he said, explaining his decision to sell his family’s stake. “I also believe that it is in the best interests of the company to have a majority owner with all the rights to effectuate one vision.”