Norcross: No more trips to Pakistan for Inquirer columnist

    In discussions earlier this year, Philadelphia Inquirer co-owner George Norcross said he wanted to ax the $20,000 travel budget assigned to Trudy Rubin, the paper’s veteran columnist on international affairs, according to court testimony Thursday.

    That’s the kind of detail that spills out when your company ownership is so dysfunctional that the only way for the parties to settle their differences is to go to court and testify under oath about their grievances against one another. 

    Lewis Katz, the co-owner who sued to reverse the firing of Inquirer editor-in-chief Bill Marimow, spent more than a full day on the stand, detailing his increasingly antagonistic relations with Norcross and editor Bob Hall, who fired Marimow.

    The legal issue in the case comes down to whether the agreement among the six owners required the approval of both Katz and Lenfest to fire an editor of the paper.

    Judge Patricia McInerney, who strikes me as smart, focused, and fair, has taken the issue seriously enough to hear testimony on it. There’s been testimony so far from Marimow, Katz, company board chairman and Katz co-plaintiff H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest, and Katz’s longtime companion, Inquirer city editor Nancy Phillips. Hall began testimony yesterday. Norcross is expected Monday

    What have we learned?

    We’ve learned that Katz and Norcross, who each put up $16 million to purchase of the paper, had no real history together and ultimately very different interests. Norcross wanted to be a hands-on owner. As Katz told it on the stand, Norcross expected Katz, who is older, to be travelling and spending time with his family.

    Indeed, Norcross did put his hands to the enterprise. His daughter, Lexie, became an executive at Philly.com, and Norcross used a polling firm he knew to do readership surveys and start recommending changes to the product.

    Norcross will have his turn on the stand next week, but, as Katz tells it, the changes Hall pushed Marimow to adopt – a smaller editorial section, more local coverage, less international news, and selected staff firings – were Norcross’ agenda.

    Katz said at least two of those recommended for firing had clashed with “a relative of” Norcross – presumably Lexie.

    We’ve also learned that the owners strangely hired Marimow as editor and Hall as publisher, who thought Marimow was the wrong choice for the job.

    The one thing I wish I’d heard more about while everyone was under oath was whether there were any efforts by owners to influence coverage for clearly political reasons. It’s not the focus of the hearing, so witnesses weren’t really asked about it.

    Hall wins one

    The judge made one ruling yesterday, dismissing the motion of Katz and Lenfest that she immediately boot Hall from his post. They asserted Hall’s employment with the company had ceased a month before the firing. The facts as related so far on this subject are complicated, but it seems Katz was aware that Hall was still acting as publisher and had not objected to it.

    The judge again Thursday declined to dismiss the motion that Marimow be reinstated, choosing to hear more testimony.

    So it’s possible Marimow could, as Philadelphia Magazine writer Steve Volk said yesterday, be drinking coffee in his old office soon.

    But if he is, Hall will still be there, along with the incompatible owners, and a lawsuit that’s anything but over.

    If McInerney grants an injunction restoring Marimow as editor, the other side will likely appeal, generating more hearings and legal costs – there are at least 10 lawyers in court every day.

    And this is isn’t even the trial, just a hearing on the motion for a temporary injunction. A trial on the merits of the case hasn’t even been scheduled.

    To state the obvious, this is not good for a media company that needs to be smart, nimble and innovative in a digital age.

    Maybe Bob Brady or Jesse Jackson can come in and negotiate a deal here.

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