PHILADELPHIA – Two business tycoons involved in an owners’ feud over The Philadelphia Inquirer turned out Tuesday for the first court hearing in the case, while rival co-owner and powerful New Jersey Democrat George Norcross was a no-show.
The dispute nominally involves this month’s ouster of Pulitzer Prize-winning editor Bill Marimow.
But the suit and countersuit reveal a deeper split between Norcross and co-owners H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest and Lewis Katz just 18 months into their joint venture. Katz, Lenfest and Marimow were in court Tuesday; Norcross sent his attorneys.
Norcross made his money in insurance and Lenfest in cable television, while Katz has a parking lot fortune and also owned the New Jersey Nets. The three are the most prominent local leaders among the six men who threw together about $55 million to buy the Inquirer and its sister paper, the tabloid Philadelphia Daily News, from hedge fund owners last year.
A Philadelphia judge set an Oct. 28 hearing on whether the case belongs in her courthouse, where Lenfest and Katz filed suit, or in Delaware, where Norcross countersued.
Lenfest and Katz want the judge to block Marimow’s firing and show Publisher Robert Hall — who fired Marimow — the door. Without explanation, a gaggle of dark-suited lawyers met with Judge Patricia McInerney for about 30 minutes behind closed doors, before she took the bench to announce the next court date.
“That’s what happens in Philly. They come out and put it on the record and everybody goes home,” Katz said to his son, Drew.
As the parties prepare for high-pitched litigation, newsroom employees work for their fifth owners in seven years, and endure unpaid furloughs, more staff cuts and endless uncertainty. Marimow’s lawyer called the Inquirer his client’s “life mission” and stressed its role as a government watchdog.
“It’s very important to the citizens of Philadelphia that they have a paper that maintains and doesn’t move away from that and toward the private and political and business interests of certain owners,” lawyer Bill Chadwick said afterward.
Lawyers for the Katz and Norcross factions declined comment, as did Lenfest.
A few current or retired staffers attended the hearing, including Dan Biddle, a Pulitzer Prize winner who was among five veteran editors that Hall wanted fired, according to newsroom employees who asked not to be named because of a directive not to talk to outside press. Marimow refused to fire them.
Both Norcross and Katz have insiders in the newsroom, and appear to have competing visions for the enterprise. Each accuses the other in their lawsuits of interfering with the news product, despite pledges to the contrary.
Norcross’ daughter, Lexie, came aboard last year at age 25 and led the company’s move from its iconic headquarters to shared space in a former department store. She now runs the Philly.com website, a free portal that, to the chagrin of some reporters, competes with each newspaper’s fee-based website and offers much of the same content.
Katz’s longtime companion is Inquirer city editor Nancy Phillips, a veteran investigative reporter and Marimow ally who congratulated the newsroom in a recent tweet for compiling a hard-hitting Sunday edition despite “the stress of a challenging week” — a week capped by Norcross’ countersuit.