Tierney and Harte Defend Local Ownership at ASNE

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By: Joe Strupp

An advertising downturn and bitter labor battle have not soured Philadelphia Inquirer Publisher Brian Tierney on his partnership?s purchase of the paper and its sister daily, the Philadelphia Daily News. In fact, the outspoken owner told members at the American Society of Newspaper Editors conference Thursday ?I have a fundamental excitement about it.?

?We happened to pick it up at a time with the worst six months in the business in the past six months,? he told a crowd of hundred of editors at the J.W. Marriott Hotel Thursday afternoon. ?There is always going to be a role for the newspaper. I don?t know if that will be $2 a copy or one that will be free.?

Tierney made the comments during a discussion with Chris Harte, chairman of the Star-Tribune in Minneapolis, which was recently purchased by Avista Partners. Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism moderated the discussion.

Tierney said he can weather that recent ad downturn and labor battle because he and his partners did not go into the deal for immediate returns. ?For the new group of folks, it is a business, but we did not expect Google-like returns,? Tierney said. ?Some of the wealthiest people in Philadelphia [when approached by Tierney to invest last year] said ?I want a higher rate of return.?? He said that was not the expectation.

?I know no one saw what happened in October, November and December [coming] in terms of a drop-off in national [advertising],? he said. ?But I am positive we are going to fix [advertising revenue] in Philadelphia. We can get our arms around it.?

Tierney also stressed that changing some of the Philadelphia work rules, such as requiring dual delivery of the two papers, is a key, as well as some concessions already given by the unions.

Harte, whose partnership purchased the Star-Tribune just weeks ago, was similarly optimistic, but with a clear eye toward growth and change. ?This industry has a great future, but it will be significantly different than I remember a few years ago,? he said. ?We bought the paper for about six and a half times earnings, those earnings will not be that high this year.?

When asked by Rosenstiel why local and private ownership can be a positive over corporate chains, both men cited less bureaucracy and closer community connections. ?You don?t have the cost of public ownership?.time,? said Tierney. ?We are buying everything cheaper too, from health insurance to our paper.?

He also said that he can have more control over quality by being nearby. ?I?ll bet you Tony Ridder?s paper was pretty well-printed in San Jose because he was out there,? Tierney said. ?He heard from people at the country club.? He later compared it to international intelligence units, saying ?The Israeli?s Mossad does better than some big defense forces.?

Harte cited the more patient profit expectations. ?We have very demanding limited partners who want to do well, but they don?t care how we do this quarter or next quarter,? Harte said. ?They care how it does in five years.?

Asked about his past political and business connections that raised concern over editorial direction early on, Tierney said his record shows no heavy influence and plenty of disclosure of even the smallest conflicts. ?They knew this going in,? he said of his nearby business partners and political allies. ?People are taking me at my word.?

Harte acknowledged such concerns about local owners, saying the perception of possible influence is real. ?Whether true or not,? he said, people may believe ?that people who own the paper are going to skew coverage.?

Still, both men saw a positive future, with Harte urging that more online revenue come from ?things on the Internet that we get paid for,? and Tierney saying he wants to go after readers with the idea that the paper ?is worth 15 minutes of your day, every day.?

?For 50 cents, this is still a bargain,? he said, holding up a copy of the Inquirer. ?If this didn?t exist, somebody would invent it.?

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