Who the Heck Is in Charge at the Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com?

"This is by far the worst it's been," says one reporter of the continuing turmoil at Philadelphia's daily newspapers.

Brian Tierney, May 23, 2006. AP Photo | Rusty Kennedy

Brian Tierney, May 23, 2006. AP Photo | Rusty Kennedy

So it’s come to this: I’m not really sure who is in charge at the Inquirer and its sister news organizations these days. And I’m not sure that the people who supposedly are in charge know either.

Yes, Gerry Lenfest became the papers’ sole owner last week. Yes, he’s installed himself as interim publisher. And yes, he’s given an interview denying that former owner/publisher Brian Tierney has returned in anything except a part-time consultant’s role.

“He’s not full time,” Lenfest told the Philadelphia Business Journal this week. “He has his own company to run.”

One problem: That doesn’t square with stories spilling out of the newsroom this week. Stories of a trio of senior advertising executives resigning their jobs on one day. Stories of a trio of Philly.com executives resigning the next day. Stories about commands and meetings of all kinds, large and small, creating waves of consternation and anger throughout the building at 801 Market.

And the man at the center of all those stories? Brian Tierney.

Philadelphia’s major newspapers are always awash in drama — so much so that it’s not always easy to know when to take internal discontent seriously — but events this week seem to have reached new heights. “This is by far the worst it’s been,” one reporter confided to me.

Insiders say Tierney has installed himself as de facto publisher. Newspaper Guild director Bill Ross said this week that Tierney has even occupied the office of former publisher Bob Hall.

“We don’t really know what his role is,” Ross said of Tierney’s arrival.

If Tierney’s commission is, as has been publicly suggested by Lenfest, limited to working on advertising issues to generate more revenue for the operation, that doesn’t explain why he met this week with the Philly.com producers — who reportedly resigned en masse shortly after the meeting.

“It was with a heavy heart that I submitted my resignation as executive entertainment and lifestyle producer of philly.com,” one of the producers, Leah Kauffman, emailed me. “After much consideration, I do not believe that the future of philly.com is a healthy one under IGM’s new leadership.”

Getting clarification on the situation is difficult. Neither Lenfest nor Tierney responded Tuesday to inquiries from Philly Mag.

And to be fair: It’s not at all clear that every problem in the joint can be traced back to Tierney, either. Matt Romanoski, one of the Philly.com producers who resigned this week, seemed fed up with the constant struggle between the website and the staffs of the Inky and Daily News — a situation that’s festered for years.

“I have always tried to foster teamwork and have thrived in competition … but only when that competition came from outside the walls of the building that I worked in,” Romanoski wrote in his resignation letter, obtained by Philly Mag and the Philadelphia Business Journal. “Unfortunately, too often at IGM, the opponents have come from within. That’s not an atmosphere that breeds success.”

Likewise, there are reporters who believe that Tierney — perhaps unexpectedly — supported strong journalism during his first go-round with the papers. Officially, though, the Newspaper Guild remembers how he took pay raises and bonuses while journalists were taking pay cuts. And the guild also remember that Tierney’s time atop the company produced a $50 million hole in their pension fund.

“This is a free world, and Mr. Lenfest, if he’s the sole owner, can hire whomever he wants,” Ross allowed during a discussion this week. But that won’t make the Guild forget the bad, old days.

What would help in this situation? Transparency.

It’s a truism: Journalists often suck at communicating with each other. But in a situation where ownership is new, leadership is in flux, and the future is frightening, it might help if two things happened:

  • Somebody came up with a plan.
  • Somebody communicated that plan all the way to the grass roots of the newpspapers, letting everybody orient themselves in the right direction — or letting them decide if it’s time to join a different team.

Instead, the situation is murky, and the Newspaper Guild still — as of Tuesday night — hasn’t been granted an official meeting with the new owner. Which means people are a lot more in the dark than they should be.

What we do know? Drew Katz isn’t riding to the rescue. It’s been said before, and it’s still true: This is the group of people who will decide the future of the Inquirer. There are no more white knights. Certainly not after just two weeks of the current ownership’s reign.

“I’m not sure what path we’re on,” Ross said, “or if there’s a chance to bring stability right now.”

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.