PHILADELPHIA -- Two owners of The Philadelphia Inquirer sued their company and publisher Thursday over this week's firing of Pulitzer Prize-winning editor Bill Marimow, in just the latest sign of internal warfare at the storied newspaper.
Former New Jersey Nets owner Lewis Katz and cable TV mogul H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest accuse Publisher Robert "Bob" Hall of overstepping his authority, and demand his ouster and Mr. Marimow's return.
The lawsuit cements their long-rumored rift with fellow co-owner George Norcross, an influential New Jersey Democrat, over the direction of the struggling media company, which they and others bought last year for $55 million.
Mr. Norcross' daughter, Lexie, runs the company's free Philly.com website, which offers readers much of the same content as the paid sites run by the Inquirer and its sister paper, the Philadelphia Daily News.
According to the suit, Mr. Norcross and Mr. Katz make up a two-person management committee that must approve any major business or operational decisions. Yet Mr. Katz, who invested $16 million for a 26 percent stake in the company last year, was not consulted about Mr. Marimow's firing, the suit said.
The lawsuit states that newsroom morale, and the company's reputation, has plummeted amid news reports about what the suit called "the aberrant circumstances of Marimow's firing."
Mr. Marimow had refused to fire as many as five veteran staff members who offended Mr. Norcross or his daughter, according to two newsroom staffers with knowledge of the situation. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of a recent company directive not to talk to outside media.
In response to the lawsuit, a spokesman for Mr. Norcross and the remaining investors accused Mr. Katz of interfering with editorial operations, something the owners had pledged not to do. The Norcross faction, with a 58 percent stake, said staff decisions are Mr. Hall's "sole purview," and that Mr. Marimow was fired over his newsroom shortcomings.
The statement issued by spokesman Dan Fee also made reference to Mr. Marimow's previous dismissals from the Baltimore Sun and, under a previous ownership group, the Inquirer.
"The company is on the path to profitability and stands strongly behind the fine work of Bob Hall as publisher," the statement said.
Six local investors bought the company in April 2012 for $55 million, becoming the fifth owners in six years. They put in $61 million including other costs, the lawsuit said. Mr. Lenfest put in $10 million for a 16 percent stake, giving him and Mr. Katz a combined 42.3 percent stake, the suit said. Mr. Norcross' individual stake was not disclosed.
The suit said Mr. Katz and Mr. Lenfest hope that "the Inquirer can remain an independent local, regional and national force for journalistic excellence."
Mr. Marimow, who had led the newspaper from 2006-2010, was brought back from Arizona State University last year "to bolster the newspaper staff's confidence after it had been drastically shaken by cost-cutting measures, a bankruptcy filing in 2009 and constant changes in management," the lawsuit said. Yet, hours after Mr. Marimow agreed to return for his second stint as editor, Mr. Hall was "scathingly critical" and pledged to keep an eye on him, the suit said.
Mr. Hall declined to comment on the suit's allegation that his contract expired last month, or other matters, because the litigation is pending.
The lawsuit was filed by powerful legal warrior Richard Sprague, suggesting perhaps the acidic tone of the dispute.
Staff writer Michael Vitez, another Pulitzer winner, bemoaned earlier this week that "we have owners fighting among themselves" and websites competing with each other.
First Published October 10, 2013 8:00 PM