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Sale of Philadelphia newspapers caps off wrangling, legal fights

By Dave Warner

PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - Philadelphia's two biggest newspapers were formally sold on Wednesday to a former cable television executive, capping months of power struggles and legal battles complicated by the recent death of one of the owners in an airplane crash.

The buyer was H.F. Lenfest, 84, who paid $88 million to buy out other co-owners of the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Daily News and their online site, Philly.com. at auction last month.

The sale marks the fifth time the Inquirer has changed hands in eight years, according to Philly.com.

Lenfest, who is known as Gerry, bought out three partners, led by New Jersey insurance executive George Norcross, who offered supportive words to the new owner.

“We have had the opportunity to work with Gerry over the last two years and are confident he will do all he can to make the papers and Philly.com strong, vibrant journalism outlets," they said in a statement.

Lenfest will be buying out the interest of another partner, Lewis Katz, who was killed in a crash near Boston on May 31, Philly.com reported.

Lenfest and Katz made the winning bid for the media company at last month's auction, but Katz died four days later. Katz' son, Drew, withdrew from the deal.

Lenfest built Suburban Cable Co., which he sold to Comcast in 2000 for $7.2 billion, Philly.com said.

Lenfest, Norcross, Katz and three other investors bought the Philadelphia media properties for $61 million in 2012.

Since then, they had a public falling out, largely between Katz and Norcross, Philly.com said.

Battles over editorial management of the Inquirer landed in court, and the auction of the media properties was ordered by a judge.

The head of the Newspaper Guild, which represents unionized journalists, advertising sales staff and customer service agents at the company, was critical of Lenfest on Wednesday.

Lenfest sent an email to employees after Katz's death detailing executive changes without mentioning him, said Bill Ross, executive director of the Newspaper Guild.

“My members and non-members were horrified by the callous insensitivity of that,” Ross said.

A spokesman said Lenfest, who was traveling in Europe, would not be making a comment on Wednesday.

(Additional reporting, writing by Ellen Wulfhorst; Editing by Jim Loney)