Journalists make great sources, and reporters at the Inquirer and Daily News tend to have plenty to say about the state of their parent company — currently, the troubled Interstate General Media (IGM). But since last April, when the two papers and Philly.com were purchased by a group of the Philadelphia area's wealthiest and most powerful men, that trickle of low-level leaks has been overrun by the torrent being pumped out from on high.
The spin machine has gone into overdrive ahead of today's court hearing on whether Inquirer editor Bill Marimow should be reinstated and the publisher who fired him, Bob Hall, be shown the door instead.
The crux of the matter is this: The co-owners of IGM are in a civil war which has come to a head over Marimow's firing. Leading Team Hall is South Jersey Democratic boss George Norcross; Team Marimow comprises two other co-owners, parking magnate Lewis Katz and philanthropist Gerry Lenfest.
Parsing the warring parties' fine points and shadow games is dizzying — like Kremlinology, or perhaps Talmudic scholarship, but even less interesting. Unfortunately, it is still important: One of the city's greatest public trusts is at stake.
Each side accuses the other of violating their mutual pledge not to interfere with the newsroom — a pledge made in response to the prior publisher's censorship of Inquirer and Daily News reporting in early 2012 on the company's finances and impending sale. This much is clear: While there is no evidence that any owner has killed or altered a story, both sides seem to have left their fingerprints all over editorial decision-making.
Team Marimow's argument opens with the evolution of Philly.com. The website obstensibly created to house the content of the two papers under IGM now has its own competing newsroom. It is part of a much-criticized online strategy that locks the two newspapers' sites behind hard pay walls, but allows Philly.com to publish that same content for free. (Philly.com sources contend that the Inquirer is slow moving and oblivious to the Internet age, requiring Philly.com to take charge of breaking news.)
Lexie Norcross, George Norcross' 26-year-old daughter, is IGM's vice president for digital operations and corporate services. It has long been reported that she is in charge of Philly.com, without contradiction or request for correction — though the company now insists Lexie Norcross "does not control the editorial decisions of the website."
Yet it was she who publicly defended the site's ill-fated plan to offer Gov. Tom Corbett a column. In leaked memos, Hall accuses Marimow of learning of the column "from executive meetings" and then giving "this information directly to the newsroom ... and a story on it was written in an attempt to stop the process."
Team Marimow also blames Norcross for cutting the Inquirer's editorial page in half, which Norcross denies. Indeed, a leaked September email from Katz to Norcross describes the decision as being made by Marimow. Katz wrote that Marimow said "he did it because he assumed Bob [presumably Hall] wanted it done as a cost cut in accord with the poll."
Team Marimow points out that the poll mentioned was conducted by a firm close to Norcross, and says that Norcross personally presented Marimow with the findings. A Norcross spokesperson confirms he selected the polling firm, but did so "in partnership with other owners and the senior management."
Team Hall insists Katz (with his longtime partner, journalist Nancy Phillips) persistently meddled on Marimow's behalf, attempting to thwart Hall's efforts to revamp local coverage. According to yet another leaked email, this one from Katz to Hall and copied to Norcross, the former prevented the latter from firing senior editors favored by Marimow.
"I'm invoking my co-managing partnership agreement to block this attempt," Katz wrote. "We promised to keep our hands off of editorial this seems to me to be getting closer to that line." A Katz spokesperson declined to explain how blocking the firing of a middle manager was not meddling.
But what Katz's email really reflects, says Team Marimow lawyer Richard Sprague, is that Norcross used Hall as a proxy to interfere in the newsroom. Sprague called the leaked emails part of a "pattern of attempting to smear the good name and reputation of Bill Marimow" — who is praised by some staffers as an old-school investigative reporter, but criticized by others as a dinosaur who plays favorites.
Yet, it's worth noting that none of the leaks have benefited Team Marimow.
That the fate of the city's dailies now hinges on nasty recriminations and lawsuits is unfortunate. But it's clear that distressed schools, feuding politicians and corrupt police need close scrutiny. For Philly, this media meltdown is simply bad news.
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