Philadelphia Newspapers Size Up New Owners
In Philadelphia, exhausted by the past, a newsroom filled with professional skeptics is trying to give new owners the benefit of the doubt.
The shareholders of the once-mighty Knight Ridder newspaper chain are expected to approve its sale to the California based McClatchy Co. on Monday. As part of the deal, a dozen of the less-profitable papers will be sold off separately, including the Philadelphia Inquirer and its smaller sibling, the tabloid Daily News.
The buyers are from Philadelphia, so the Inquirer and Daily News once again will become locally owned. But the new owners arrive with their own complications.
Brian Tierney, 49, stitched together the group that's buying Philadelphia's papers. It includes big-shot regional figures -- the head of NutriSystem, along with a major home developer, a car dealer and dozens of others. Tierney is on the brink of taking over as the papers' CEO.
"I am so excited that I wish it were July already," Tierney says. "I've never wanted to June to end so fast, just so I can get started."
Tierney says he's already helping bring in money. He's a local boy who made a fortune building up and later selling Philadelphia's largest advertising and public-relations firm. In the process, he won a nickname at the Inquirer: Superflack.
Trish Wilson is the editor for the Inquirer's science and medicine desk. She says Tierney left a lot of bruises trying to quash the coverage that his clients didn't like.
"He has a poor reputation for being a bully in the newsroom," Wilson says. And that's the nice version; Wilson actually says she's eager for the Tierney era to begin.
But former Managing Editor Phil Dixon says Tierney's a snake.
During the 1990s, Tierney represented Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua. He arranged meetings with top editors to denounce the paper's coverage of the Roman Catholic archdiocese. Dixon says that Tierney's tirades betrayed a contempt for the Inquirer, and an ignorance of how it actually works.
"Part of editing a newspaper is deciding who covers what and when," Dixon explains. "You don't give that power to anyone outside the newspaper."
Several former Inquirer staffers say Tierney demanded that reporters be reassigned and articles killed in this and other cases. But Tierney denies that. Rather, he says he challenged unfair coverage.
"Truth is sometimes born out of two people with different views discussing it," Tierney says.
Tierney has been active in Republican circles, but he says he's done with politics and that his loyalty to the Inquirer and Daily News will be complete.
"I will be a very forceful advocate for this place as well," Tierney says. "Which is why I think you see people high-fiving me as I come through here."
The Inquirer's new parent company won't be publicly traded and its owners say they don't expect the high profits demanded by Wall Street.
But there's a catch. Tierney's partners include many of the region's most influential entrepreneurs. Almost any article could generate a conflict of interest, as reporters dig up dirt on their new owners -- or their competitors.
Tierney made his partners promise they won't interfere with the news.
"I told every one of the investors, 'You're excited about this investment, but I guarantee you, in a year or two or three, you're going to call me up and you're going to be all upset because your business or your pet civic cause or your industry -- you're going to feel -- has been maligned, and you're going to come to me. And I'm going to have to tell you then, there's nothing I can do about it.'"
Reporters remain concerned about echoes of the past -- when the Inquirer was owned by local magnate Walter Annenberg, who used newshole to reward his friends and ignore his enemies. Inquirer editor-in-chief Amanda Bennett knows that history.
"I'm not naïve," Bennett says. "I know the pressures that everyone is going to face. I know this is going to be a difficult process. But I'm going to choose to believe in the good will and integrity of the people who bought this paper."
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