The newspaper story

    Philadelphia’s newspapers made big news this week, as Brian Tierney’s ballyhooed experiment in local ownership died in bankruptcy court.
    Chris Satullo was present at the birth of the experiment, as a top editor at “The Inquirer,” and in this week’s “Centre Square” essay, he comments on its demise. [audio: satullo20100502.mp3]

    Brian Tierney’s doom was sealed on the day of his triumph.

    What happened last week was fated from June 2006, when he paid too much to get into a business whose woes he did not fully grasp.

    Last Wednesday, at a bankruptcy auction, Tierney’s creditors wrested away control of his two beloved newspapers, The Inquirer and the Daily News.

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    The price was $135 million. In 2006, a group of investors Tierney recruited paid $515 million for the papers and Quite a four-year tumble.

    It’s clear now that the PR whiz overpaid back then, like a teenager buying a red sports car. And too much of that dough was borrowed.

    That debt burden was more than even Tierney’s energy could overcome.

    Look, I must disclose that I have no reason to like Brian Tierney. I worked at and loved The Inquirer for 20 years, and he drove me out. I was one of many to feel the lash.

    But I have to say this: He did some things very right. He just had the bad luck to arrive at a moment when, over the nation, the Web was smashing to smithereens the business model that once made print journalism a cash cow.

    Still, Tierney tried hard. His showmanship, pride in the papers and sense of crusade were a tonic for staffs battered by years of abusive chain ownership. He applied jumper cables to a sleepy sales staff. He paid big money to lure name writers.

    Like any novice, he also screwed up. An entrepreneur at heart, he struggled with managing a big, tradition-laden organization. He’s a master of spin, but that can be an awkward trait in someone leading a business whose brand is truth-telling.

    The spunky, streetwise Daily News did well as his favored child, winning a Pulitzer this year. The lordly Inquirer struggled to adjust in a digital age; it pretty much gave up on covering the whole region. It did regain its old sweet spot: telling sweeping stories about city issues.

    The onset of the creditors is not necessarily Armageddon. They brought in a savvy old hand to run the shop. And they bought the property for a song – so they won’t be hobbled by debt.

    I wish those two great old rags, and all the friends who work there, better days. The time when newspapers fade away may be coming… but not yet. Please not yet.

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