Newspaper Guild Director, Lenfest Trade Accusations, Barbs

Union director says “minority faction” of owners has mislead journalists about decisions and plans.

inquirer boxThe war over the future of Philly’s two daily newspapers took another odd turn Wednesday: The director of the Newspaper Guild representing the papers’ journalists exchanged insulting “open letters” with Gerry Lenfest, a member of the “minority faction” of owners suing over the recent firing of Inquirer editor Bill Marimow.

Bill Ross, executive director of the Newspaper Guild, in his letter accused Lenfest and Lewis Katz, who together comprise that minority faction, of misleading guild members about editorial decisions and plans to resolve the ownership conflict. Lenfest’s letter disputed Ross’s accusations, and responded: “I will at any time stake my reputation for honesty against your own.”

At the end of the day, Newspaper Guild president Howard Gensler, a gossip columnist for the Daily News, tried to walk back Ross’s letter— saying it shouldn’t have been made public. “It was the making those views public in conflict with the stated position of the Board that was the problem,” Gensler said, emphasizing that the union remains neutral in the battle between ownership factions.

Ross’s letter became public early Wednesday afternoon. Lenfest’s response was released to Philly Mag shortly after 5 p.m.

“My members have been through enough drama at this company,” Ross wrote to Lenfest. “I cannot demand you and Lewis sell your interest in the company, but I must demand that you treat my members with the respect and honesty they so greatly deserve.”

“Your ‘open letter’ of today is filled with falsehoods, distortions and complete fabrications,” Lenfest responded.

Among Ross’s accusations:

• That Katz and Lenfest had misled members of the guild about the recent decision to cut editorial pages at the Inquirer from two to one on weekdays. “You and Lewis told our board that George Norcross made the decision to cut the Inquirer editorial pages, which was later proven to be a lie when Bob Hall sent a string of owner emails to employees last week,” Ross wrote.

Lenfest’s letter was silent on that issue.

That Katz and Lenfest had reneged on a promise to sell their shares in Interstate General Media — the company that owns the Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com — once the company was in “capable hands.” Ross accused them of changing their minds when a judge decided to keep jurisdiction of the legal case in Philadelphia rather than send jurisdiction to Delaware. “You both denied making any offers to sell your shares and acted as though I had concocted this idea out of thin air,” Ross wrote.

“I never stated I would sell my interest in the company ‘when it was in capable hands’ or otherwise,” Lenfest responded. He additionally denied telling Ross he was “emboldened” by the ruling on jurisdiction.

That Katz planned to bring Marimow and former publisher Brian Tierney back to the papers despite substantial newsroom opposition to both. Ross also suggested that Katz was maneuvering to return his “companion” — unnamed in the letter, but widely known to be former investigative reporter Nancy Phillips—to a Guild job in the newsroom.

“The last of which is amusing because she once conducted a byline count of her colleagues,” Ross wrote, “breaking down how much each earned per story written and told the owners that her fellow journalists were paid too much.”

Lenfest made no mention of Phillips, but acknowledged a modified idea of Marimow’s return: “I said that Marimow should return as editor to the end of his term and his renewal would be up to the new publisher.”

• That Katz and Lenfest’s lawsuit is doing more harm than good to the newspapers and their staffs.

“The fact that you and Lewis waged a court battle over the Publisher’s decision to fire an editor, after pledging not to interfere with the editorial operations of the newspapers, has once again forced this company into a situation of turmoil and uncertainty that negatively impacts your employees, advertisers and community,” Ross wrote.

Lenfest responded: “Your facts are incorrect and your email belligerent. As for lying, I will at any time stake my reputation for honesty against your own. I have great respect for members of the Guild, but, unfortunately, not for you.”

Gensler said Ross’s letter shouldn’t have been made public, but defended Ross nonetheless.

“This is an incredibly stressful time. Bill is under an amazing amount of stress,” Gensler said. “He’s got owners calling him multiple times a day, each in his ear, telling him how great they are, and he’s got 500 members who are concerned … I think he got frustrated with the lack of progress.”

Gensler added: “The Guild Executive Board has decided to stay neutral because our 500-plus members have very different opinions about this,” he said. “We believe it is best at this time not to pick a side. We reserve the right to pick a side when and if the time comes.”

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Full letter from Newspaper Guild director Bill Ross to Gerry Lenfest, member of Interstate General Media’s “minority faction” of owners

Dear Mr. Lenfest,

It is with great disappointment that I write you today.

As you know, the Newspaper Guild Executive Board has remained neutral and not allied itself with either the minority or majority owners in the ongoing dispute over control of Interstate General Media.

But I can no longer refrain from telling my membership about your actions over the past few weeks in which you have misled me, lied to me and attempted to cast doubt on my credibility to the other owners of the company.

First, you and Lewis told our board that George Norcross made the decision to cut the Inquirer editorial pages, which was later proven to be a lie when Bob Hall sent a string of owner emails to employees last week.

Then, early last week it was Lewis Katz who asked me to invite George Norcross to a meeting in which I would act as mediator to try and resolve your litigation. To get a feeling of what your side wanted to propose as a settlement I spoke with Lewis by phone and met with you in your office Wednesday. That was when you said you and Lewis would sell your interest in IGM once you felt the company was in capable hands. To reach that point you said that Lewis and George would each nominate two members to a Board of Directors and you would appoint a tie breaking member. That board would work together to hire a new publisher who would then hire a new editor for the Inquirer. I asked if you understood that Bill Marimow would not be the editor and you said yes. You also stated several times that you wished to serve as the publisher on an interim basis.

After we spoke I approached Lewis with the idea and he also understood what I would convey to George. Once I did so, and confirmed that the majority owners saw this overture as a positive basis for settlement discussion, you both changed your minds. You told me you were emboldened by Judge McInerney’s decision to hear the case in Philadelphia and you backed off your settlement talks and denied ever indicating you would sell your shares and also referred to a scenario in which Marimow did not return to the Inquirer as a deal breaker. You both denied making any offers to sell your shares and acted as though I had concocted this idea out of thin air.

Through conversations with Lewis it has become clear that his only plan for the company is to waste money on legal fees to bring his friend Bill Marimow back to a position in which many of my members, as well as industry observers, feel he is not equipped for, to bring back Brian Tierney who drove the company into bankruptcy and has nothing but distrust from my members, and to make sure his companion returns to a Guild job in the Inquirer newsroom. The last of which is amusing because she once conducted a byline count of her colleagues, breaking down how much each earned per story written and told the owners that her fellow journalists were paid too much.

You say the fight is not about money, and that the newspapers are a “public trust,” but it was only a few months ago you threatened to liquidate the company if our union didn’t agree to wage cuts and other concessions to help the company get on solid footing. How can I believe you have a long term vision for the future of this enterprise further than your own self interest to serve as publisher?

The fact that you and Lewis waged a court battle over the Publisher’s decision to fire an editor, after pledging not to interfere with the editorial operations of the newspapers, has once again forced this company into a situation of turmoil and uncertainty that negatively impacts your employees, advertisers and community. My members have been through enough drama at this company. I cannot demand you and Lewis sell your interest in the company, but I must demand that you treat my members with the respect and honesty they so greatly deserve.

Bill

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Full letter from Gerry Lenfest to Bill Ross:

Dear Mr. Ross:

Your “open letter” of today is filled with falsehoods, distortions and complete fabrications.

A few examples: I never stated I would sell my interest in the company “when it was in capable hands” or otherwise.

I said that Marimow should return as editor to the end of his term and his renewal would be up to the new publisher.

I never told you I was emboldened by Judge McInerney’s decision.

Your facts are incorrect and your email belligerent. As for lying, I will at any time stake my reputation for honesty against your own. I have great respect for members of the Guild, but, unfortunately, not for you. I note with great interest that the president of the Guild today said that your statement was issued without the permission or the knowledge of the union’s executive board and represented “a significant lapse in judgment”.

Gerry

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