At the Inquirer, Shrink Globally, Slash Locally?
Monday, November 27, 2006
Brian Tierney, a onetime critic of the Philadelphia Inquirer who wound up buying the paper, is determined to take his new property in a different direction.
"We don't need a Jerusalem bureau," he says. "What we need are more people in the South Jersey bureau."
But six months after this advertising and public relations executive gained control of a once-proud newspaper that routinely ranked among the country's top 10, he is considering layoffs of as much as 30 percent of an already reduced newsroom staff. That would mean even fewer journalists covering those New Jersey suburbs and just about everywhere else, deepening the sense of gloom at a paper that racked up 18 Pulitzer Prizes between 1975 and 1997.
"The Inquirer, unfortunately, has retreated in all but a couple of symbolic ways from the ambition it had at one time to play in the majors," says veteran reporter Rick Nichols. Tierney's threatened layoffs, he says, "would be carved right out of the heart of local coverage."
Tierney, a fast-talking man who bristles with confidence, casts himself not just as the Inquirer's savior but as the prototype of a new breed of newspaper owner -- a private businessman insulated from the Wall Street profit pressures that plague publicly owned companies. Such pressures ultimately led Knight Ridder to fold this year after selling off the Inquirer and 31 other dailies.
Private ownership is the flavor of the moment. Many staffers at the Los Angeles Times hope that the parent Tribune Co., which fired the paper's editor and publisher after they resisted layoffs, will unload the Times to David Geffen or one of the other California billionaires vying to buy it. A local investment group is also attempting to buy Tribune's Baltimore Sun.
But such ownership has its own pitfalls, which can range from an unfamiliarity with the ethics and ethos of newspapers to shallow pockets that may force even deeper cutbacks. Tierney may be right that local coverage is the Inquirer's core mission, but didn't far-ranging journalism also make the paper attractive for readers?
In its heyday, the Inquirer had 15 foreign and domestic bureaus and a national reputation for tough investigative reporting. But like many big-city dailies, the paper shrank its staff as daily circulation declined, from 470,000 a decade ago to 330,000 today.
"Those of us who've been here a long time have watched the paper being chopped to death, little chunks at a time," says television columnist Gail Shister. "That's hard to watch, because we used to be great. We haven't been great for many, many years."
As a PR man, Tierney often clashed with the Inquirer. When he represented Philadelphia's Catholic archdiocese in 1998, he tried to freeze out a reporter he deemed too critical of the church, likening him to Newt Gingrich writing about Bill Clinton. Inquirer columnist Monica Yant Kinney recalled how Tierney tried to "bully" her in 2002 on behalf of a bank executive.
But when Tierney put together a group of investors to buy the Inquirer and its sister tabloid, the Daily News, from Knight Ridder, he largely overcame the hostile history by signing a pledge not to interfere with the editorial operation. And while he makes financial decisions and sets a broad direction, he has kept his word not to meddle in news coverage. Tierney, who has contributed $200,000 to Republicans over the last decade, according to the Inquirer, also said he would no longer make political donations.
"It was a good business opportunity," Tierney says of the $562 million purchase of the papers. "The best way to protect that investment was not to screw around with editorial integrity."