Lenfest takes charge at Inquirer, Daily News

     The Philadelphia Inquirer, located on the 800 block of Market Street. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

    The Philadelphia Inquirer, located on the 800 block of Market Street. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

    And just like that, the wing man takes over.

    Philanthropist H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest, who a few months back was a lesser figure in the battle for control of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, will now become the principal owner of the company that owns the papers and Philly.com.

    After a seven-month legal fight, Lenfest and New Jersey businessman Lewis Katz won control of Interstate General Media in a court-ordered auction on May 27, only days before Katz was killed in a private plane crash.

    Katz’s son, Drew, who was expected to take his father’s place in the management of the company, issued a statement Tuesday saying that “because of the turmoil of the last 10 days,” he’d decided that it would be in the best interests of the company to sell his ownership stake in the enterprise.

    While the sale of Drew Katz’s share hasn’t been finalized, it appears the papers will finally have a single owner who might be able to set a course and stay with it.

    What’s ahead?

    About the only thing we know is that Lenfest doesn’t know what he wants to do with the region’s largest media enterprise. That was apparent in a news conference after he and Lewis Katz won the auction.

    It’s clear Lenfest likes and trusts Inquirer editor Bill Marimow. But how he’ll approach the business challenges facing the papers in a digital age is anyone’s guess. Lenfest was obviously a canny businessman when he made a fortune in the cable TV business, but most of what he’s done in recent years is give huge checks to institutions (and some political candidates) whose work he supports.

    In other words, he isn’t going to run the company. He’s going to find someone who he thinks can, so the question of the hour is: Whom does Gerry Lenfest trust?

    Lenfest’s decision to bring back former Inquirer publisher Brian Tierney as a sales consultant and former Daily News publisher Mark Frisby as associate publisher for operations wasn’t exactly cheered in the company newsrooms.

    Feelings about Tierney are mixed among those I know at the papers, but many are troubled to think that the first move of the new owner is to turn to the usual suspects, rather than seek new faces and new ideas.

    We’ll see. There’s no reason to think Lenfest has any motive other than to make the company viable and serve the region. And, given the experience of the past two years, the company is probably much better off having one owner than two or five or seven.

    How did we get here?

    If you’re into the drama of the ownership battles over the company, read Ralph Cipriano’s account in his blog, The Big Trial. He says bad blood developed very quickly between Lenfest and Drew Katz — that Lenfest never called him after his father’s death, and that he began making unilateral decisions about the company.

    In his statement Tuesday, Drew Katz said that “despite public reports to the contrary, Mr. Lenfest sent me a heartfelt, beautiful note when my father passed away. My father loved Gerry Lenfest and Gerry loved my dad.”

    My guess is that Lenfest had a special relationship with Lewis Katz and that, once he was gone, he wasn’t prepared take on another partner. Drew Katz has his own business interests to look after and had no interest in a fight for control of the media company.

    Better to part ways early than to let resentments build.

    Heaven only knows what the next episode of this soap opera will bring.

     

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