The meeting is lore, now: a story about a table for two that likely caused all South Jersey to wobble, ever so slightly, on its axis. The setting: Lamberti’s, aflutter with white tablecloths, occupied by the swellegant, an Italian seafood restaurant that serves as something of a home field for one of the men at the table, George Norcross III.
His name means different things to different people. Norcross earned millions in the insurance business, as executive chairman of Conner Strong & Buckelew. He earned a scary reputation as the grinding stone of the Democratic Party in South Jersey, choosing who ran for what political office till he accumulated so much wealth and power that he became downright kingly.
Critics plaster Norcross with uncomplimentary terms, like “the Jersey Devil.” Admirers cite his more recent run of philanthropy, thanking him for building a better South Jersey. Friends and enemies often see his avalanche of thick white hair at Lamberti’s, in Cherry Hill, but the 57-year-old Norcross added this March 2012 stop to his calendar upon request, and reluctantly. He would maybe order a bowl of linguine or something.
Across from him sat Lewis Katz. His name also means different things to different people: An entrepreneur of many trades, Katz has worked, successfully, as an attorney, a political power broker to governors Jim Florio and Ed Rendell, a shareholder in the New York Yankees and New Jersey Nets and Devils. But he made his biggest bundles of loot in comparatively schlubby businesses like parking lots and billboards. Tall and trim, with thinning hair he combs over a wide bald spot, Katz was the one who called and asked for this meeting.
Critics plaster Katz with invective, too, citing his vanity, his operatic ego, his success at leveraging political connections into cash. Admirers cite his philanthropy, including a recent $25 million gift to Temple University, and say that at 72, he is doing it right at the end, ladling wealth on good causes.
In what is likely the most accurate rendering of this encounter, Katz spoke first: “George,” he said, “I am not sure you’re comfortable with this deal. And I want you to be comfortable, George.”
Katz and Norcross were deep into their run at buying this city’s largest media organization: the Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com. Norcross took in Katz’s opening salvo, the reason he had been called here to eat linguine for which he was not particularly hungry, and responded, “I’m comfortable. I’m moving ahead with this deal. But I think you’re uncomfortable. … ”
Was Katz trying to avoid the embarrassment of queering the deal by getting Norcross to bail first?
“George,” Katz told Norcross, “I just want to be sure you keep the passion I’ve seen in you throughout this deal. I don’t want to be that heavily involved, and I just want to be sure you’ll make it work.”
“I’ll make it work,” replied Norcross.
Less than two years later, the business pairing of Lewis Katz and George Norcross looms as a master class in how things fall apart. Neither man recognized that this moment at Lamberti’s forecast worrisome levels of indecision and mistrust. And so this is a story about how one brief dinner foreshadowed a dessert of legal briefs and lawyers’ fees.
The two men bought into a business deal for very different reasons: Katz for romance, nostalgia, love; Norcross for money, power, challenge. The different perspectives meant each man had a different view of the path ahead. And the result is Philadelphia’s highest-profile feud in years, featuring two men who can’t abide losing in a battle for a prize that relinquishes a little more luster with every lawsuit.
“None of this makes sense anymore,” says a local businessman who has known both men for decades. “Because it isn’t about business. It isn’t about money. It’s all ego now. It’s face.”
“DARLING,’ THE EMAIL BEGINS.The sender, Nancy Phillips; the recipient, Lewis Katz; the date, March 17, 2012, as Phillips goes on to elucidate a comprehensive strategy to turn around the Inquirer.
“Company needs a new publisher,” she writes.
“Paper needs a new editor.
“Philly.com needs a new leader.
“Daily News has to be seriously evaluated with a view toward possible elimination or curtailment as in a move to the website with pared down staff and a paper product one day a week if at all.”
At the time, Phillips worked in the newsroom of the Inquirer as a reporter. And in roughly two weeks, George Norcross III would close a deal with her boyfriend, Lewis Katz, to acquire the desk, the chair, the whole shebang that was her workplace. In this sense, Phillips’s letter was business advice, a “honey do” list, and the fantasy of any working stiff made manifest.
In 10 paragraphs, Phillips advised Katz to fire or demote and replace six people: her boss, editor Stan Wischnowski; publisher Greg Osberg; Philly.com chief Wendy Warren; and the COO, the CFO, and the head of the advertising department. She also alerted Katz to Mark Block, “the lovely PR guy,” because she’d just noticed he held a VP title and probably made too much dough. “Maybe he plays a larger role that I don’t understand,” she wrote.
Of all the people in this story, Phillips, 50, might be the most complicated. For years she has swept into the newsroom each Monday, a big bunch of fresh-cut flowers clutched before her. She speaks in stately, almost Victorian cadences, coming off like Mary Poppins. As her colleagues faced a never-ending stream of furloughs, buyouts, layoffs and pay cuts, her Twitter stream read like an ongoing accounting of relative wealth and privilege. (“Am I the only one who finds creme fraiche evocative of caviar? Even in the absence of that glorious pairing, it reminds me + transports me.”)
But for all her blue-blooded posturing, Phillips has logged 30 years of blue-collar effort, slogging across the grittiest terrain, tugging at the most tangled secrets, to get the story. She obtained a hit man’s confession in the infamous murder of rabbi Fred Neulander’s wife. She wrote the first story accusing venerable Daily News sports columnist Bill Conlin of child molestation. And today, in her role as city editor, she is equally well-regarded as both skillful and a good boss.
But she happened to have that rich, politically connected boyfriend. For years, the relationship between Katz and Phillips, who met in the early ’80s, was the Inquirer newsroom’s open secret. Katz never divorced his wife, Margie, for years appearing beside her at family functions. (Margie Katz passed away in late December.) But many years ago, he and Phillips moved into a condominium overlooking Rittenhouse Square.
Katz wouldn’t be interviewed for this story. (Through his spokesman, Jay Devine, he denies the specific accounting of his dinner at Lamberti’s with Norcross but doesn’t provide any details.) However, a few dozen interviews and a torrent of emails leaked to media all over town tell the story well enough. Katz entered the newspaper bidding in early 2012 after receiving a call from Ed Rendell, who knew that the company—which had been bought out of bankruptcy by several hedge funds and banks in 2010—was again for sale. For years, Rendell and Katz enjoyed a close partnership: Katz helped fund Rendell’s political runs while making a mint off those parking garages and billboards.
Katz expressed interest in the papers and looked around for partners. Meanwhile, Rendell looped in cable mogul H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest. The other investors, including Liberty Property Trust CEO Bill Hankowsky, insurance executive Joe Buckelew and tech
CEO Kris Singh, all arrived via George Norcross—who had started exploring a bid to buy the company a few months earlier, after talking to Greg Osberg and John Angelo of Angelo, Gordon, one of the hedge funds that owned the papers.
There were questions, before the deal was even finalized, about men with such deep political connections running the region’s largest, most powerful media organization. In press coverage at the time, the new owners declared that they bought the company out of a sense of civic duty. But people close to the process say the owners talked, a lot, about making money. The papers and website had dropped in price from more than $515 million when former adman Brian Tierney bought them in 2006 to a little more than $55 million when Katz and Norcross allied to buy them.
But there are public reasons and private ones, and Katz likely had many motivations.
A Camden native, he was raised by his mother after his father died. He graduated first in his class from Dickinson School of Law, and spent time interning for Drew Pearson, the syndicated newspaper columnist and NBC radio personality. The relationship meant a lot to Katz, who asked Pearson to serve as the best man at his wedding and later named his only son after the newsman. Owning the Inquirer, in this context, likely appealed to a sense of nostalgia.
Of course, Katz must also have been motivated by Phillips, and people who know him say this personal tie certainly “added value” to the transaction. Even as Katz told Norcross he didn’t want to be involved in day-to-day operations, he started a major move without his new partner’s knowledge, and with Phillips by his side.
AT FIRST GLANCE, if there is a hero in this story, it would seem to be Bill Marimow.
The 66-year-old Marimow is a legend in modern American journalism, winner of two Pulitzer Prizes as a young reporter at the Inquirer and a symbol of the paper’s greatest days in the ’80s and ’90s. He left for the Baltimore Sun (where he eventually became editor), then became vice president for news at NPR. But in 2006 he returned for his dream job, serving as editor in chief of the Inquirer under the doomed ownership of Tierney. Marimow led the paper for four years, till the hedge funds took over. Then the new publisher, Greg Osberg, citing Marimow’s lack of expertise—and perhaps interest—in digital journalism, demoted him back to investigative reporting.
The ending hurt. But Marimow moved on, engaging in his second-best love, teaching, at Arizona State University. It was in Arizona, in early February of 2012, that he received a visit from Lewis Katz, who wanted to talk about the newspaper industry. The two men were friendly acquaintances, having dined together on couples’ dates with Phillips and Marimow’s wife. At the time of the Arizona visit, Katz seemed like a businessman prospecting a new venture. More discussions followed. And then, maybe six weeks after Katz’s initial visit, Phillips and Marimow started working out, by email, the terms of a deal for Marimow to return, including salary, autonomy, and the ability to hire two or three key editors.
For Phillips, the conversation must have been filled with promise. When Marimow became New Jersey editor in the late ’80s, he inherited Phillips, who’d been a correspondent in the bureau since 1985. He had mentored her, saw to it, through legendary editor Gene Roberts, that she was hired on full-time. Now she sat in a position to bring him back so he could end his career the right way, in the city where he was born.
What Marimow means to Philadelphia is difficult to quantify. But longtime political operative Tom Massaro tells a story that gives a sense of his importance: In the early ’80s, Massaro arrived to run the housing department for then-mayor Bill Green and conferred with some of the city’s leading African-Americans.
“I need to know how a young white guy can gain the support of the people in the neighborhoods, who are mostly black,” Massaro said. “If I’m going to do any good, I’m going to need their help and their trust.”
“Talk to Bill Marimow,” they told him.
Massaro, new to town, could only ask: “Who’s Bill Marimow?”
Congressman William Gray answered: “Every day,” he said, “Bill Marimow is the guy who keeps hundreds of black boots out of thousands of black asses.”
Marimow, himself a young white guy, had gained the trust of dozens and dozens of neighborhood sources by exposing a litany of civil rights abuses by the city police, from beatings to dogs loosed on innocent citizens. He shook the city’s bones, dropped a dose of justice into its DNA, and delivered a master class on doing journalism in the process. “Bill would call his sources back,” says longtime Marimow colleague Vernon Loeb, now with the Houston Chronicle, “including the people we might consider his ‘targets,’ and say, ‘This is what I am planning to write,’ point by point, and give them another chance to respond.”
Marimow was tenacious about getting the truth out. “Sometimes,” says Loeb, “if he didn’t have all the sourcing or information, he would encourage sources to come forward or just make his point by writing a story in which he articulated the remaining questions.”
Writing about the 1985 MOVE tragedy, in which then-mayor Wilson Goode ordered a bomb dropped on a house occupied by black activists, Marimow questioned the official story that five of the 11 victims actually emerged from the fiery house only to retreat back inside, of their own accord, to die.
“If [the officers] are accurate in saying that either four or five people escaped from the MOVE house,” wrote Marimow, “their accounts raise questions about exactly what transpired in the back alley. … Did [Conrad Africa] choose to retreat into the flaming garage, where he died in the fire? If not, how did his body end up back in the house?”
The reputation Marimow forged, for toughness and integrity, gave him a unique allure in later years, particularly to owners with entrenched political and business interests. His old boss, Brian Tierney, saw him that way, even after leaving the papers. “Bringing [Marimow] on board will immediately and powerfully answer the concerns of editorial independence and integrity,” he wrote to new owners in an email later leaked to the media. “It makes the issue go away.”
Katz, too, felt that Marimow’s innate ability to quell people’s suspicions just by being there was a primary part of his value. Hiring Marimow, he’d later say in court testimony, meant landing an editor who’d “remove the stigma” from his ownership group. For a guy who earned his reputation asking questions, being known as the man who eliminates them is an odd niche to occupy. But as the deal moved closer, Katz and Phillips arranged for Norcross to meet with them and Marimow at Rembrandt’s restaurant in Fairmount.
Norcross’s spokesman claims Norcross didn’t know that Katz was engaged in a search for a new editor in chief for the Inquirer—or that he was involved romantically in a long-term relationship with an Inquirer reporter—until a couple weeks before closing the deal. Katz’s spokesman says Norcross knew “of the search for an editor long before” the meeting at Rembrandt’s.
The stress of being responsible for managing the deal wore on Norcross: six partners, $55 million in play, hedge funds to be satisfied. Because the media already questioned the group’s fitness to own a media company, they were working on a pledge to assure their non-interference in editorial “either directly or indirectly.” They also needed to define their own corporate governance.
In the end, the new company, Interstate General Media, included in its decision-
making process a six-man board consisting of all of its investors. But major business decisions would require the approval of both participants in a two-member management committee: Katz and Norcross.
All of these pieces were still coming together as the foursome sat down at Rembrandt’s. Katz left after the introductions. But Norcross went ahead and stuck around for about an hour.
The image is compelling: George Norcross, one of the most investigated men in the region, sitting across from Bill Marimow, the legendary investigator. Norcross has done a lot to change his image in recent years, plowing time and effort into Camden, opening a new charter school and guiding an ongoing expansion of Cooper Hospital. But he remains the all-powerful political boss of South Jersey. And anyone who does business with Norcross would be advised to listen to the Palmyra tapes, a series of 13-year-old recordings, captured by law enforcement, in which he can be heard seeking political retribution on all who dare oppose him and popping off angry fucks like gunshots. Norcross faced no legal trouble from the investigation, but the tapes comprise an unalloyed look into his thinking at the time. They also suggest not just a willingness to fight, and hurt, but a thirst. And the most memorable part of Norcross’s conversation with Marimow that day at Rembrandt’s suggests he never lost the taste.
“Don’t try to be friends with me,” Norcross cautioned Marimow. “I don’t become friends with the people that I work with. The white hat isn’t me. I’m the black hat.”
THE NEW GROUP, already mired in complex relationships, got off to a difficult start. Marimow’s new tenure began that May. But beforehand, the then-editor, Stan Wischnowski, had to oversee coverage of the paper’s new owners. He planned to disclose Katz’s relationship with Phillips.
Citing fears that Katz’s wife was “frail,” Phillips wrote to Norcross in a March 31st email: “I can’t tell you how much I worry about the potential consequences of such a story. … I have tried to dissuade Stan from this, and I might yet succeed. But maybe not. If not, that may be too high a cost. Part of me wants to kill the whole deal over this. … ”
That line, suggesting that a reporter at the Inquirer had the power to kill his deal, must have been a knee-meets-groin moment for the usually all-powerful Norcross. But Phillips’s attempts to dissuade Wischnowski are even more interesting, journalistically.
In journalism, reporters are taught to reveal any potential conflicts of interest. Considering that Phillips’s role at the paper might ultimately influence Katz’s business decisions, and the degree to which her relationship with Katz might raise questions about the paper’s coverage, there really wasn’t any other choice for Wischnowski but to disclose. Furthermore, the new owners were taking a pledge not to do exactly what Phillips was doing—interfere in editorial. But she was undeterred.
“[T]he relationship poses no conflict for the newspaper,” she wrote to Norcross in another email that same day. “I have always stayed out of stories involving Lewis. Also argued that there was really no relevance to this, beyond gossip appeal.” But Wischnowski pressed on. “Katz and his wife, Marjorie, have two children,” read a disclosure in an April 3rd Inquirer story. “The couple have lived apart for many years. Katz is in a long-term relationship with Nancy Phillips, an award-winning Inquirer investigative reporter.”
The passage is strikingly restrained, even French, in its attitude toward what remains, technically, a long affair. But it was accurate.
The same could not be said for the announcement, that same week, that Marimow was returning to his editor’s post.
“Who shall I say hired me?” the new-again editor had asked Phillips when they were closing the deal.
She helped craft what she later called “the official version”—that Osberg happily hired Marimow back.
In reality, Greg Osberg demoted Bill Marimow in 2010 and recommended against rehiring him in 2013. So did then-chief operating officer Bob Hall, who told the new ownership group that Marimow had “problems” with women and minorities. Nonetheless, Osberg signed and sent Marimow a letter of employment. Osberg also issued quotes for a press release about how glad he was to have Marimow back in charge, just 18 months after he’d demoted him.
For anyone who even remotely followed happenings at the local paper, the official version was an unbelievable fiction. And Marimow waved in the general direction of the facts: “I think the local owners might have suggested it’d be great if I returned,” he said.
The official version served as a white lie, not unlike allowing fired employees to declare they resigned. Yet the tale remains unsavory: The new, politically connected ownership group, fresh from its vow not to interfere, brings in a peerlessly ethical editor to buff up its image, while fobbing off an at-best-incomplete story of how it all came to pass to the public, and even its own reporters.
As one person close to the formation of the ownership group told me: “The pledge always struck me as Lemon Pledge. Something to clean up the surface.”
RIGHT OUT OF the gate, the new ownership group divided. Norcross, a data hound, presented a thick stack of findings from a survey of current and former readers to advocate for major change. Katz, backing Marimow, argued for what amounted to a comparative status quo.
Norcross’s was the more clear-eyed, modern vision: Working with Hall (who replaced Osberg as publisher in mid-2012), he advocated a significant redesign of the print product; a complete overhaul of the company’s Web strategy; a reduction in editorial op-ed pages from two to one; and a renewed focus on local news by eliminating the jobs of five editors and replacing them with seven reporters.
The list isn’t perfect: Do readers really reject “op-ed columns” as a concept, or just the version the Inquirer had been producing? Will mere data-crunching ever deliver something truly innovative or visionary?
Still, the list, particularly in terms of a redesign, more local news, and an awareness of the digital product as preeminent, comports with the newspaper industry’s current direction. And the initiatives triggered a proxy war: Norcross pressed for change behind Bob Hall; Katz pushed back wherever Marimow (and presumably Phillips) required assistance.
Hall submitted a list of editors to be demoted or fired. But Marimow resisted, with Katz acting as his benefactor. In one email to Hall, Katz wrote that he was invoking his blocking rights to prevent the changes.
“Bob,” Marimow would say, “we need evolution, not revolution.”
As slogans go, an appeal to Darwinism is a bit of a drag. But Marimow contends he only used the “evolution” line to slow the redesign and avoid alienating subscribers with an unrecognizable paper. Of course, keeping readers at all is a tricky business. After decades of crushing losses in readership, the Inquirer has spiraled a further 25 percent in recent years, its subscriber base dropping from 350,000 in 2007 to roughly 258,000 now. But in whatever context Marimow meant the words, they seem to capture something of the man.
In person, Marimow is anachronistic, as slow-talking, literal and polite as 1955. But he can also be intimidating. “He’s got the Pulitzers,” says one staffer, a fan. “And if he hears you’re stuck on a story, it’s kind of like a software program has kicked in, and the computer is whirring to life, and some of what he says will be so basic. It’s stuff like, ‘I would get a notebook, and a pen’ and then somewhere in there will be some incredible nugget of good advice. But some people won’t think of the basic stuff as, you know, just some quirk of Bill’s. They’ll take it personally.”
Marimow isn’t, as Hall seemed to imply, racist or sexist. Lots of phone calls to staffers who worked with Marimow over the decades confirm that. He is merely, well, Bill Marimow—with a sense of his own accomplishments. And in some fundamental way, that sense of self-possession leaches into the staff around him—as if they all won Pulitzers, too. The paper isn’t selling? Advertisers are departing? Well, it can’t be the fault of the editorial department. “What we do is rock- solid,” one staff writer told me. “The problem is how we’re marketed and sold.”
The Inquirer staff is still big enough, at around 250 people, that generalizing about it is unwise. Still, as I called around the newsroom for this story, numerous staffers expressed the same idea: The Inquirer’s revenue problem is purely a function of the business side. And their self-satisfaction is only compounded by their fear of the man pushing change.
Take, for example, this: George Norcross III and the board gathered data that the Inquirer’s ownsubscribers are rarely able to recall the name of a single columnist.
Pffft! goes the response. So what? Norcross is a political hack. The same firm that does his political polling gathered reader data. Never mind that the same company also conducts polling for the Los Angeles Times. The subject shifts from any kind of meaningful self-reflection on how the Inquirer might be better to Norcross: Is he secretly eager to cut editorial pages and columns only because he nurses a grudge against the sections of the paper that, traditionally, dole out the most severe beatings to guys like him?
Norcross’s history and his outside pursuits demand we ask this sort of question. And so the largest media organization in town, its revenues so low it was thought to be losing $50,000 per day, immediately fell into a damaging stasis. The guy pushing for meaningful change, George Norcross, enjoyed no one’s trust. And the guy everyone trusted, Bill Marimow, presided over a newsroom that saw no need for change.
THE DAILY NEWSreadied a redesign of its print product in about six weeks. The evolutionists at the Inquirer took nine months.
By February 2013, Norcross, and Hall, grew increasingly frustrated with Marimow. And meetings among the new company’s owners got bizarre. Norcross kicked into boardroom-brawl mode: “Lewis,” he said at one point, “why do I even talk to you? Shouldn’t I just talk to Nancy?”
That talk incensed Katz. But on most occasions, he seemed bent on calming Norcross’s growing fury. “Hey,” Katz said once, standing up from the meeting table and spreading his arms wide. “C’mon. Hug me. Let’s be friends again.”
By last March, the entire ownership group discussed a complete overhaul of the management team. By July, still locked in a stalemate, Hall told the board he wanted to fire Marimow.
“You can’t,” Katz warned Hall, telling him he would invoke his blocking rights.
The operating agreement they’d formed, in which Norcross and Katz had to agree on all major business decisions, had come to serve as a tar pit, trapping the company. The pair had failed to create a tiebreaker system, believing a total sharing of power would force them to resolve conflicts. In hindsight, it’s hard to imagine teenagers agreeing to run their fantasy football team by such unworkable rules. But Katz and Norcross succumbed to some tyranny of ego: “These are men who are used to getting their own way,” says one highly placed executive in town.
As time passed, the entire battle became hugely personal.
Hall even added Nancy Phillips to the list of staff members he wanted to fire. And Norcross’s daughter, Lexie, then a 25-year-old with no journalism experience, took on a supervisory role at Philly.com, where her greenness shows up like a grass stain. In May 2013, when the site launched a regular column by Governor Tom Corbett, she responded to criticism by knocking the newspapers across the hall: “Considering that the Inquirer and Daily News slam him every day,” she said, “I think it’s actually equal, giving him a chance to speak.”
Unable to conceal her political genes, Lexie tweeted a link to an article in which her dad backed Cory Booker’s Senate run, with the message: “Go @corybooker go!”
The general tenor of Philly.com’s original content also did her no favors, pushing the site further into vapid, celebrity-driven click bait. But whatever Lexie Norcross’s current merits and future potential, the two sides now had every reason to dig in for a corporate cage match. Katz sought to protect the interests of his girlfriend and the editor she idolized. Norcross needed to look out for the long-term interests of his daughter, who seemed to have found the career she wanted to pursue. Two of the region’s most powerful and politically connected residents didn’t have just money and ego at stake, but also skin, blood and love.
ON JANUARY 11, 2013, Chris Brennan of the Daily News filed a story titled, “8th and Market enters running as potential casino location.”
About midway through the story, Brennan wrote: “The Goldenberg Group owns 60 percent of that land. Lewis Katz, a managing partner of the company that owns the Daily News, the Inquirer, and Philly.com, is a limited partner in Goldenberg but is not involved in the casino application.”
This is the sort of disclosure news organizations make so readers can know any conflicts of interest that might exist.
The Inquirer and Daily News have since published more than 20 stories that include the possibility of a casino being erected at the Goldenberg site. But Katz’s involvement was never mentioned again until columnist Karen Heller finally noted it in January 2014.
Were the papers seeking to tuck Katz out of sight? There is some evidence to suggest Katz might prefer it that way. In 2006, during a separate, earlier casino application process, Katz’s daughter, Melissa Silver, appeared on a casino license application. After questions were raised about Katz’s involvement in the project, he finally came forward—in 2010, four years into the process—as an applicant.
With the current casino project, publisher Bob Hall sent a group email to Katz and the other owners, asking them to divulge any ties they or their families had to possible casino groups or locations so the paper could disclose any potential conflicts of interest.
“I have no relationships,” Katz wrote back, “nor am I involved.”
Was this an oversight on Katz’s part? Katz’s spokesman, Jay Devine, provided the following statement: “[Lewis Katz] does not have any interest in the Goldenberg casino entity or the 8th & Market land. The land is owned by a trust for the benefit of Lewis Katz’s grandchildren, which is not controlled by Lewis Katz.”
Is Katz related to his grandkids?
In December, more questions were raised when Temple University decided to drop seven student athletic programs. The Inquirer’s first story, on December 7th, mentioned and quoted Katz, identifying him as “a member of the Temple board of trustees and chair of the board’s athletic committee,” and “a co-owner of the Inquirer” who “recently pledged to donate $25 million to the school.”
Katz chairs the committee that put forward the restructuring plan for the school’s athletics department, so he is integral to the story. As coverage evolved, however, he wasn’t mentioned by the Inquirer again—either in the sports section or in a follow-up piece that appeared in the local section.
There were complaints from some staffers, not on Team Marimow, that Katz sat in on a 10 a.m. news meeting. An obituary writer also complained when a funeral director sent over an obit and claimed that Katz had said it would be published. (The funeral director provided Katz’s cell-phone number as evidence of the owner’s involvement.) Katz, through his spokesman, Devine, “categorically denies any involvement in any editorial decision by an editor or journalist,” calling this story “absolutely false.”
True, Phillips had long recused herself from writing about any issues that might relate to her boyfriend. In 2013, when she was named city editor, she never edited stories that involved Katz. And when Temple shut down the sports, Phillips recused herself from edit meetings on the subject.
But reporters and editors in the Inquirer newsroom don’t seem to much care about these sorts of issues. Because they have the ownership group they have. And given Katz’s desire to please Phillips, and Phillips’s respect for Marimow, they’ll take that trio, gladly. As multiple staff members told me: “Just look at the alternative.”
IN JANUARY OF 2013, Norcross held a lunch meeting with Bill Marimow at the downtown Marriott. There, Norcross pushed the data about columns and editorial opinion pages across the table. The stats, which pollsters had presented three months earlier, suggested readers didn’t particularly like or follow the Inquirer’s op-eds or columnists.
For old Inquirer hands, whispering like POWs behind barbed wire, the meeting is evidence that Norcross, a political bully, sought to intimidate Marimow into making editorial changes, in violation of the pledge he took when he purchased the papers. (Norcross says he “doesn’t remember” ever handing Marimow the data.)
I also obtained an email from Bob Cauthorn, an Internet consultant, that was sent to Marimow. The consultant lists “directives” Cauthorn says he received from Norcross, who hired him, including one to oversee the redesign of the Inquirer’s website.
Norcross says he saw Cauthorn’s role as organizational and aesthetic, “overseeing design.” But editors typically oversee the work of art directors and Web designers—not the other way around.
The Big Fear is that Norcross will somehow leverage his Inquirer ownership to serve his political and business interests. Again, there is a small evidence trail to follow. I obtained a document from January 2013 involving Philly.com in which management sought and received a legal opinion exploring whether giving columns to Cory Booker and Governor Chris Christie would violate any “equal time” requirements (no, the lawyers said) or political contribution laws (likely yes).
Booker and Christie never got columns. But Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett did.
Norcross told me he never spoke to Corbett about the column. The Governor’s former spokesman, Kevin Harley, says Norcross approached Corbett about joining the New Voices program at Philly.com when the pair met, for the first time, in January 2013 at the Academy of Music’s annual ball.
Harley says he subsequently met on behalf of the Governor with Lexie Norcross before any agreement was struck, and that no quid pro quo was ever raised or resulted.
Suspicions are likely to remain high, however, as long as Norcross is involved. Bill Graham, of the Graham Company insurance brokerage, says he is “rooting for Katz.” Graham says Norcross has tried to buy out his entire company in the past, and he “can only speculate that George, given his political interests, is not interested in investigative journalism, and that the paper, for him, is a way to help those political interests along.”
There is a sense here, of course, that Norcross can never win. His status as political strongman guarantees him constant scrutiny and conspiracy mongering. And in this way, his ownership of the paper guarantees that the Inquirer can never win—that to many in the region, if not the newsroom itself, its every edition will seem somehow suspect.
As I worked on this story, I was urged by multiple staff members at the Inquirer to look into specific allegations they raised about Norcross’s supposed bad behavior.
In March 2013, for example, Bob Hall complained to Bill Marimow about a story involving a possible conflict of interest for Judge Seamus McCaffery. Hall questioned whether the story should be played on page one. (In fact, the piece, by veteran reporter Craig McCoy, sparked an FBI investigation.)
Hall calls any claim that Norcross put him up to it “complete bullshit.” But the rumors are triggered by circumstance: McCaffery is a major figure in Philadelphia’s Democratic Party, and Norcross is the boss of South Jersey’s Democratic Party; the beleaguered Inquirer staff needs no more evidence than this to start talking.
I also looked into a contract Norcross’s insurance agency, Conner Strong & Buckelew, got with the Pennsylvania Turnpike. To those on Team Marimow, the Turnpike deal catches Shady George in action, leveraging his new presence in Pennsylvania, his ownership of the Inquirer and Tom Corbett’s new column into a government contract. But none of the timing supports this theory. The contract was awarded in July 2012, six months before Corbett and Norcross ever met and 10 months before the Governor started his column. Besides that, Turnpike contracts are subject to a strong level of scrutiny.
Is Norcross seeking to undermine the paper’s investigative reporting, or divest it of the opinion pages that sometimes sway voters? The better question might be this: Would he even need to?
I started receiving tips from Inquirer staff members precisely because they weren’t going to pursue stories about Norcross themselves. All of the new owners took a pledge not to interfere. But they interfered the day they bought the company. What staffer is going to walk into the Inquirer newsroom and say, “Hey: Let’s investigate our owners!”?
George Norcross III now owns an empire that spans the insurance industry, hospitals, politics and publishing. And the lesson here is that he doesn’t actually have to intimidate anyone to be intimidating.
ON OCTOBER 7TH, Bob Hall’s secretary sent an email to Bill Marimow. Subject: “Catch Up With Bob.”
When Marimow arrived, Hall soon brought him up to speed—with a show-stopping sentence: “I’m terminating your employment,” he said.
“Have you talked to all the owners?” Marimow asked. “Did Lewis Katz support this?”
Hall, by this time, had a legal opinion declaring he could fire Marimow without the management committee’s approval. But Marimow knew about the operating agreement, left Hall’s office, and called Katz.
A TRIBE OF reporters gathered in Courtroom 630 in City Hall over the course of four days of testimony this fall, watching as an increasingly animated Lewis Katz, a plaintiff, kvetched and rubbed incessantly at the deep worry lines of his face.
Following Marimow’s firing, Katz and Gerry Lenfest brought suit against Norcross and the other owners. Katz’s courtroom antics made great theater. And during a long last-ditch effort to negotiate some resolution, he and his attorneys shuttled repeatedly from the courtroom to the judge’s chambers. Speaking loudly, Katz even declared, “I don’t want to go back there,” his wary eyes looking at the door to the judge’s office.
On the other side of the room, George Norcross looked comparatively giddy, like a guest at a cocktail party.
Katz tapped Dick Sprague to lead his legal team—the attorney of choice among the city’s most powerful citizens—and Sprague pursued the case on legal grounds. But Norcross’s attorneys waged a political campaign. They embarrassed Nancy Phillips, grilling her on what attorney Robert Heim called the “fabrication” she helped invent for who had hired Marimow in the first place. It was for “public relations,” Phillips offered.
“But this statement was a fabrication,” Heim tried again, forcing Phillips to offer a concession: “This is, as I explained, yes.”
Katz’s legal team asked for three things: the firing of Hall; the upholding of the company’s operating agreement, which calls for Katz and Norcross to agree on big business decisions, like firing the editor; and, finally, the reinstatement of Marimow.
The suit split the ownership group in two, with three owners joining Norcross while Lenfest sided with Katz. And for what, exactly? Lenfest and Katz thundered from the stand that firing Marimow would do irreparable harm to the Inquirer, but what kind of culture had Marimow really built if the whole place fell apart whenever he walked out the door? Besides, Marimow’s employment agreement only ran through April 2014, while Hall’s contract was due up in December 2013. Were these guys really fighting, this hard, over who would be able to keep his job for a few more months?
In the end, the judge put both men back in their jobs—reasoning that Hall still had a valid contract, but that the firing of Marimow violated Katz’s rights as co-manager.
The ruling set the stage for further legal proceedings: Katz has since petitioned the court to dissolve the company and make its properties available in a public auction. Norcross is arguing that the papers should be auctioned only among the current owners. Both men have vowed to bid in whatever auction occurs. And the newspapers themselves seemed strangely lost in all the tumult—stuck, without a full-time long-term publisher; lacking clarity on who will run the Inquirer newsroom; and without any will to experiment or innovate.
Still, the judge’s ruling did trigger movement of a kind.
Nancy Phillips disappeared from the office after Marimow’s firing. Upon his reinstatement, she arrived, as she always did on Mondays, fronted by an armful of fresh-cut flowers.
Later, the Newspaper Guild complained on behalf of a staffer, alleging that Phillips arranged her blossoms, then walked around the newsroom urging staff to stand and applaud when Marimow returned to his office. (Phillips vigorously denies this.) Given her status as a city editor and an owner’s longtime girlfriend, the guild’s complaint contended, this was like ordering employees to create a fake standing ovation. But the joke is that even if the applause erupted spontaneously, the scene could only represent an illusion: that Marimow could really be the answer when what the Inquirer needs, first, is an ownership group that raises fewer questions.