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.
The price was $135 million. In 2006, a group of investors Tierney recruited paid $515 million for the papers and Philly.com. 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.