Now that the Inky ownership battle has been resolved in favor of Lewis Katz and H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest, the guys we used to refer to as the “minority ownership faction” of the Inquirer, Daily News, and Philly.com — we’ll just refer to them as the “owners” from now on — we’ve got a few burning questions about the future of the newspapers
•Does anybody know what to do next? Sure doesn’t look like it. As soon as Messrs. Katz and Lenfest presented themselves to the media, reporters questioned them about the future of the papers: Who will be publisher? How to address declining circulation? Will there still be three websites? How to address declining revenue? What’s the plan?
The plan, reporters were told repeatedly, hasn’t been developed yet.
“We have to figure out the future,” Lenfest said. “We’re not there yet.”
Which is odd. The two men have been part owners of the papers for at least a year-and-a-half. They’re rich, which presumably means they’re no dummies when it comes to making money. They just bid $88 million on what they admit is a declining asset. And they have no idea how to turn it around? Uh-oh.
"We do have a plan,” Lenfest amended when pressed. “The plan is to go out and hire the best publisher and CEO" to fix the papers, he said. That’s better than no plan at all, but given the knowledge and money involved, it’s odd the two men seem so unprepared for what’s next.
• Which old faces will be most prominent under the new regime? Bill Marimow, whose firing as Inky editor last year set off the ownership squabble that resulted in today’s auction, probably is newly secure in that role. No surprise there. One face that might pop up? Brian Tierney, the former owner and publisher who steered the newspapers into bankruptcy back in 2009. But he won’t be back in a formal role.
“He may consult with us,” Lenfest said of Tierney. “But he has his own company.”
• What just happened to George Norcross’s aura of invincibility? A lot of people — your humble correspondent included — assumed Norcross would win, because what George Norcross wants, George Norcross gets. Nope. Not necessarily. Let the word go out throughout South Jersey: The boss can be beaten. (Free advice to anybody who buys this line of thinking: Just because it has happened doesn't mean it will happen for you.)
(On a similar note, let’s get an understanding straight with the Inquirer. Everybody bitched and moaned about having Norcross as a boss; if the paper now does some fantastic investigative work in the next year “exposing” Norcross, it’s going to look less like public service and more like payback. And believe me, there are people who expect the payback. There are papers that can do the work without looking like they have a conflict. The Inquirer never will be one of those papers again, as far as Norcross is concerned.)
• Is there a showdown with the unions coming? Probably. Bill Ross, director of the Newspaper Guild that represents the journalists at the papers, launched a pre-emptive strike, warning: “We’re done giving. We want to build this company.”
But it simply doesn’t happen these days that a newspaper company changes hands without new owners having a “come to Jesus” moment with employees. Maybe Katz and Lenfest will defy history, but that would probably require them having a plan. Which they don’t.
• Can these guys handle media scrutiny? If you’re a reporter in the employ of Messrs. Katz and Lenfest, Tuesday’s presser probably wasn’t encouraging. Katz, in particular, seemed to get testy as the questioning progressed — complaining about the “appropriateness” of personnel questions so soon after bidding concluded. The event concluded with a reporter asking the duo if they’d taken on debt in order to make the $88 million bid.
Katz stood up, thrust his hands into his pocket, and jutted his chin forward aggressively. “No!” he spit out. It did not appear friendly. The press conference clearly ended at that point. It was enough to make a journalist at the papers wonder if they’ll get support asking more than routine questions of people in power.
They’ll create a governing board designed to nip conflicts — like the kind they had with Norcross — in the bud. But sooner or later, then men and their deep pockets won’t be around to shore up the newspapers. What then? And how soon till we get to that point?
The day started with one question: Who will own the papers next? There are now many more questions to ask, with no easy answer. For the Inquirer and Daily News, the future is never all that clear.
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