Judge considers ordering Inquirer to reinstate Marimow as editor

    Could fired Inquirer editor Bill Marimow be back in his office by Friday?

    A Philadelphia judge is taking the complaint that Marimow was improperly fired seriously enough to begin taking testimony on whether she should issue an injunction returning him to his job.

    Judge Patricia McInerney heard nearly four hours of testimony from key players in this media soap opera Wednesday: Marimow; company owners Lewis Katz and H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest; former publisher Gregory Osberg; and Inquirer city editor and Katz companion Nancy Phillips.

    The testimony didn’t yield a smoking gun, but it showed that the 2012 purchase of the company that owns the Inquirer, Daily News, and Philly.com was a hastily assembled deal that created a dysfunctional family almost certain to come apart eventually.

    Marimow was fired by publisher Bob Hall with the support of co-owner and South Jersey businessman and powerbroker George Norcross. Norcross and Hall say it was a sound personnel decision within the purview of the publisher.

    Katz and Lenfest say the firing violated a provision of the owners’ agreement that all major business decisions be approved by a two member management committee consisting of Katz and Norcross.Katz, who didn’t know Norcross before they became the principal partners in the enterprise, said on the stand that because he and Norcross were each putting the same amount of money in ($16 million), he insisted on “for lack of a better word, blocking rights.”

    Trouble from the beginning

    When Katz and Norcross led a group of six investors in buying the company from hedge fund owners last year, there was public skepticism that such a politically connected group could be trusted with the region’s leading media outfit.

    They brought Marimow in to establish credibility — but they also kept Hall, who was anything but a Marimow fan, as publisher.

    Marimow said on the witness stand that when he was hired, he got a call from Hall, who said he “strongly opposed” Marimow’s return as editor.

    Marimow said Hall asserted that 60 to 70 percent of the newsroom opposed his return; that Marimow had a reputation as someone who “dislikes women and dislikes minorities”; and that Hall would be “perched on his shoulder” to make sure he did an excellent job.

    Gee, what could go wrong?

    Marimow said he wondered if he’d made a mistake in taking the job, and that he got an assurance that Katz and Norcross “were hiring me and only they would be able to fire me.”

    Lawyers on the other side of this noted that Marimow got no written assurance that he would have editorial autonomy or that the publisher couldn’t dismiss him. In fact he never had an employment contract , just an offer letter stating some basic terms of the deal.

    Norcross – a force to reckon with

    One thing that emerges as this drama unfolds is that Norcross is more interested and involved in the business than the other investors. His daughter, Lexie, is a key executive at Philly.com (the extent of her power is a subject of some dispute), and the company hired a polling firm Norcross knew to do a readership survey cited in proposed changes.

    When company board chairman Lenfest took the stand, he said we would like to have regular board meetings with minutes, something he said doesn’t happen.

    “Everything is being done under the direction of Mr. Norcross,” Lenfest said.

    Attorneys for the Norcross side noted under cross-examination that Lenfest presumably has the power as board chairman to convene a meeting. Lenfest said he wasn’t sure about that.

    The partners made a pledge not to interfere with the journalistic decisions of the company, and you can have a debate about whether they’ve lived up to it. When Norcross wants to cut the size of the editorial section or increase local reporting at the expense of other efforts, is that a business or journalistic decision?

    It’s both, so it’s tricky.

    Norcross had a reputation before becoming a media company owner for putting serious effort into influencing news coverage – lobbying, complaining and sometimes leaking to those covering him and his interests.

    If he’s intervened in the papers’ and website coverage to promote his interests and punish his enemies, we haven’t seen evidence of it in the case so far. Most of what I’ve heard about his efforts involve cutting costs and changing overall direction for the paper, and some of that is, of course, controversial.

    Testimony continues Thursday.

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