The co-owners wrestling for control of The Inquirer and its parent company told leaders of the newsroom union last week to expect a protracted legal fight.
In nearly four hours of separate closed-door talks at the newspaper's Center City offices, George Norcross and Lewis Katz accused each other of interfering in the editorial affairs of the paper, according to attendees at the meeting.
Both also vowed they would not give in.
"Trust me, this is not going to be pretty," Mr. Norcross said, according to two people present.
The meetings with leaders of The Newspaper Guild, which represents more than 500 reporters, photographers, editors and other staffers, came as the men prepared for a court showdown over the fate of the newspaper, its publisher and former editor.
Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Patricia A. McInerney ordered the lawyers to come to her courtroom Tuesday to discuss the lawsuit Mr. Katz and another co-owner, H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, filed last week against publisher Robert J. Hall and Interstate General Media, the partnership that owns the newspaper, The Philadelphia Daily News and Philly.com.
The lawsuit, which grew from a long-boiling feud between Mr. Norcross and Mr. Katz over the direction of the paper, was filed after Mr. Hall fired Inquirer Editor William K. Marimow this month.
Mr. Katz opposed the firing, which he said violated their partnership, and he and Mr. Lenfest want the judge to reinstate Mr. Marimow and remove Mr. Hall.
A spokesman for Mr. Norcross and other owners said Mr. Katz had violated an agreement not to interfere with the newspaper's editorial operations.
The men took their dispute to a third-floor conference room Wednesday at the 801 Market St. headquarters of Interstate General Media.
An Inquirer reporter was barred from attending the private gatherings. But other attendees later described what they heard.
They said each of the owners explained their positions to nine officers of The Newspaper Guild, while the union officials urged both sides to settle their conflict quickly and peacefully.
One observer said it became apparent that neither owner would give in, short of "complete annihilation" of the other.
At one point, several participants said, Mr. Norcross said that Mr. Katz was interested in The Inquirer and in protecting the editor only because Mr. Katz's companion, Nancy Phillips -- a veteran investigative journalist -- is the paper's city editor and an ally of Mr. Marimow.
Mr. Norcross, a South Jersey insurance tycoon and Democratic Party boss, also told the union leaders that he would ultimately prove Mr. Katz's interference in the newspaper, attendees said.
Approached after the meeting, Mr. Norcross declined to comment.
The attendees said that Mr. Katz, a real estate mogul and former New Jersey Nets owner, and Mr. Lenfest, a philanthropist and cable television pioneer, said they were interested only in upholding the integrity of The Inquirer and good journalism.
Contacted later, Mr. Katz would say only their meeting was "low-key and courteous," and an "open exchange of views on where this thing is going."
He said neither he nor Mr. Lenfest asked the union for public support.
Guild leaders, who have endured four ownership changes in less than a decade, left the meeting perplexed and concerned over the fate of the company.
"It's always a pleasure to hear from our owners -- except when they say the exact opposite things," said Howard Gensler, a Daily News columnist and Guild president. Mr. Norcross told guild members it could cost at least $1 million to defend IGM from the lawsuit.
Last Thursday, Mr. Norcross filed a countersuit Delaware's Chancery Court against Mr. Katz. Mr. Norcross claims in his countersuit that Mr. Katz meddled in "editorial and journalistic operations of the papers" and is intentionally trying to prevent Interstate General Media from defending itself in court.
The company employs an estimated 1,800 people at the two newspapers and Philly.com.legalnews
First Published October 20, 2013 8:00 PM