How Many More Inky Journalists Can Jump on the WHYY Lifeboat?

“In theory, there has to be a limit,” admits Chris Satullo.

For Inquirer exiles, all roads lead to WHYY.

“I’m vividly aware of that impression being formed,” says Chris Satullo, vice president of news and civic dialogue at the public station and a fellow refugee. “I know the folks we’re working with are really good. They have a lot of game left.”

Longtime theater critic Howard Shapiro last week became the latest passenger in Satullo’s lifeboat, joining science ace Faye Flam, political commentator Dick Polman and cartoonist Tony Auth. Together, with Satullo, they represent 140 years’ experience at the former Tower of Truth.

There’s plenty more where they came from. A week doesn’t go by that Satullo doesn’t get pitched by a current or former Inky staffer, he says, and he’s talking to “several” now. No names, but my money’s on Tom Ferrick, whose promising “Metropolis” blog just went under.

Inky alums don’t get preference, Satullo insists. Every applicant is considered individually, based on such factors as skill set; “brand” recognition—for the daily blog, Newsworks, as well as for WHYY-FM (90.9)—and fund-raising potential of the individual’s work.

Speaking of funds, public broadcasting, like Blanche Dubois, depends on the kindness of strangers. “I don’t have a pot of money waiting to hire folks who leave the building on Market Street,” Satullo, 59, says. “I spend the better part of my day fund-raising, so we can be a better home to journalists.”

His former colleagues are treated as independent contractors, paid mostly by the piece, according to Satullo. “They’re pursuing portfolio careers. We’re part of the mix of things they do. This is the new deal. Everybody’s an entrepreneur, cobbling together various gigs. We’re happy to work with them.”

Auth, WHYY’s first digital artist in residence, is a special case, with a one-year “residency” funded by grants. It ends in April, but Satullo is confident he’ll find “some angel donors” to renew it.

Satullo could have used an angel when he was at the Inky. In December ’07, then-owner Brian Tierney tried to fire him, Satullo says, “because he said I cost too much.” A Guild member at the time, Satullo was protected. He hung in for another year before landing at WHYY in January 2009.

Despite the unhappy ending to his almost two-decade tenure, Satullo takes no pleasure in the Inky’s struggles. He holds hope that things will settle down enough for the staff to focus on journalism instead of “near-death experiences every week.”

Unlike the Inky’s ancient mariners, most of Satullo’s staff is under 35. “They enjoy working with the older hands,” he says. The youngsters teach the elders about technology, the elders teach the youngsters about in-depth journalism, and nobody makes big money. It’s a win-win-win.

At some point, however, won’t Satullo max out on the Inky pedigree?

“In theory, there has to be a limit,” he says. “I don’t have a number in mind, nor has one been ordained for me. I try to look at it as a whole. Does it all collectively make sense? Are we serving the audience we’re trying to serve?

“I worked for a long time at a great newspaper, and it felt like we were fighting a defensive war. This feels better than that.”