Fourth sale in six years could be end turmoil at Inquirer, Daily News

Six years after local investors purchased the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News for more than $500 million and vowed a turnaround, the beleaguered papers were sold for $55 million yesterday.

A group of local businessmen led by former New Jersey Nets owner Lewis Katz and Cooper Health System chair George Norcross III will take over Philadelphia Media Network, the parent company of the papers and, from a collection of hedge funds. The group said it will retain publisher and CEO Greg Osberg and that no additional layoffs are expected.

“We believe that we can, with the various constituencies involved, make this a success,” Norcross said.

Media experts across the country said the sale was a bargain, but that investors will have a hard time reversing years of red ink and declining revenues.

“I certainly wouldn’t put up $55 million to buy the organization today,” said Temple associate professor Chris Harper. “The Philadelphia newspapers talk about the high quality of journalism done by the news organization, but in recent months they’ve laid off dozens of reporters. They forced one reporter to remove a story about the sale, so there’s been censorship. … I don’t think it’s a well-run ship and hasn’t been for some time.”

Poynter Institute media analyst Rick Edmonds said digital news platforms have shaken the industry’s foundations.

“The figures sort of speak for themselves that values have come way down and actually the market for acquisitions has improved some in the last nine months, maybe because the market is so [soft],” he said.

Powerful hands are taking hold

In the wake of a story that was reportedly pulled about the potential sale, the new owners vowed to sign a pledge of non-interference with editorial content.

“This is America. Everybody is entitled to write what they feel is appropriate,” managing partner Lewis Katz said.

“Everything we do is going to have to be as transparent as possible,” Norcross later added.

But Temple associate professor Chris Harper, who worked 20 years as a reporter, said he is skeptical management can remain hands off.

“I don’t see how they can possibly stay out of the editorial product and make things work,” he said.

Name game

In addition to Katz and Norcross, the new ownership group includes:

Cable TV magnate H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest, who will serve as board chair

William Hankowsky, chairman and CEO of Liberty Property Trust and chairman of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce

Kris Singh, president and CEO of Holtec International, a nuclear energy technology company

Joseph Buckelew, chair of Connor Strong and Buckelew.

Turnover and over

Since 2006, the papers and have been sold four times.

June 2006: The McClatchy Co. bought Knight Ridder and put up some of the least-profitable papers for sale.

June 2006: Philadelphia Media Holdings, led by Brian Tierney, purchased the entities from McClatchy.

October 2010: After the company filed for bankruptcy, a group of lenders purchased the company for $139 million.

Yesterday: A group of local businessmen bought the papers from Philadelphia Media Network following secret negotiations.

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