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From AJR,   March 2010  issue

An Unlikely Newspaper Hero   

WEB EXCLUSIVE
Brian Tierney and the Philadelphia Dailies


By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      

Let's give him his props.

Brian Tierney fought the good fight. A quintessential Philly guy, the tough, swaggering former public relations powerhouse took over the embattled Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News in 2006 when McClatchy kicked them to the curb. He battled tirelessly to keep them alive in punishing times.

Overwhelmed by the transformation of the newspaper business, a brutal recession and massive debt, the papers went bankrupt. But even then Tierney kept at it, leading the effort by a local group of investors to prevail when the papers were auctioned off this week.

This time it wasn't enough. His efforts fell short, and the papers are now in the hands of the senior lenders, money guys.

But it wasn't for lack of trying.

Tierney is the unlikeliest of newspaper heroes. He was a loud, brash Philadelphia PR man who played serious hardball, someone known for bullying journalists, not nurturing them. His battles with the Philadelphia Inquirer over coverage critical of the Catholic Church were epic.

But all of that changed quickly after Knight Ridder, owner of the Inquirer and the Daily News, was acquired by McClatchy in 2006, and McClatchy instantly put the Philly orphans on the market. In a stunning development, a group of local investors put together by Tierney won control of the papers.

The Knight Ridder endgame in Philly had been ragged and dispirited. Tierney, with his characteristic verve, talked of a bright future, a rebirth. In a move that revealed much, Tierney brought in Bill Marimow, a key figure in the Gene Roberts glory days at the Inquirer and a former editor of the Baltimore Sun, to run the beleaguered paper.

Of course, shepherding newspapers in the Internet era during a devastating recession proved to be much tougher than Tierney could have imagined. But through it all, the dailies have continued to do good journalism. Marimow brought back some other glory-day veterans. He brought stability to the revolving-door editor's office. And he also brought a commitment to accountability journalism.

The Inquirer is hardly the Inquirer of legend--no foreign bureaus and black rhinos. But by today's standards, it is a pretty damn good paper, with a sharp local focus.

And the perpetually endangered Daily News, an always engaging tabloid with an uncanny sense of the wonderfully idiosyncratic city it calls home, stayed alive, not a small achievement. Despite massive staffing cuts, it retained enough moxie to win a Pulitzer for investigative reporting two weeks ago.

So now the New York hedge funds get their turn to run the papers. This Daily News piece looks at the impact of one of them--Angelo, Gordon & Co--on Tribune Co. and Minneapolis' Star Tribune, and finds a mixed picture. No, it's not like Ben Bradlee bought the papers. And the new owners' notion--since jettisoned--of dumping the entire staff and rehiring half of it wasn't exactly inspirational. But as the benighted souls on the wrong end of those Goldman Sachs credit default swamps learned, life is full of surprises.

After all, Brian Tierney became a newspaper guy.

*

(Disclosures: Marimow is a friend. My first reporting job was at the Inquirer, in the unlamented Walter Annenberg era. With my unerring instinct for the good career move, I left about six months before the Knight brothers--no, not the ones who sang "Temptation's 'Bout to Get Me"--bought it, and John MacMullan set the table for Gene Roberts' Pulitzer machine. And I've had a lifelong love affair with the Daily News. In the dark, primitive days before the Internet, I twice had out-of-town subscriptions. Larry Merchant's incredibly smart, literate Daily News sports section, the impossibly readable City Hall coverage of George Kiseda and Lou Sheinfeld, and Nels Nelson's jazz reviews had a lot to do with why I got into journalism.)