The Philadelphia Story

You don't have to be that old to remember when the Philadelphia Inquirer was the crown jewel in the estimable Knight Ridder empire, winning 17 Pulitzers during the tenure of executive editor Gene Roberts and being driven by the investigative zeal of reporters Donald Barlett and James Steele.

Today the Inky and its fiesty sister tabloid .the Philadelphia Daily News -- which had languished as one of the "orphans" created by the Knight Ridder sale to McClatchy -- have new owners, a group of local investors led by "public relations entrepreneur" Brian Tierney.

First the good news, as contained in today's Inky account of the deal.

The Tierney-led group is the first consortium of local business owners to take control of a major daily newspaper, the publisher said. The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today all are owned corporations that have felt pressure from Wall Street to cut costs and boost profits.

Boy, wouldn't it be great news for the newspaper industry if a local ownership team created a successful business model that could offer an alternative to mega-corporate ownership and ease Wall Street's tightfisted grip on the business? That's a rhetorical question.

But here's the worrisome downside to this kind of transaction, as enunciated in the Inky story.

Tierney is familiar to many Inquirer editors and reporters for his strident advocacy on behalf of influential friends and clients. In 1991, he led Catholic activists in picketing the paper.

"He was always a very aggressive and passionate advocate," said Maxwell E.P. King, a former Inquirer executive editor and now president of the Heinz Endowments in Pittsburgh. King said he worried "about the independence and integrity of the news coverage."

Tierney acknowledged the potential for conflicts of interest. He said his investors signed a pledge not to interfere with news coverage, and promised not to sell their investments for at least five years.

"I was an advocate in advertising and public relations for my clients. Now I'm going to be a zealous advocate for this organization," Tierney said.

Pressed on how his promise to respect the newsroom will be enforced, Tierney said: "I'll beat the crap out of anyone" who tries to break it.

You always have to worry about newspapers becoming a vanity buy for someone eager to impose his or her agenda on the community. For now, let's be happy the papers are alive, wish the new owners luck, and take Tierney at his word.

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