In the history of The Inquirer, the Annenberg era lasted 34 years, the Knight Ridder era 36 years, and the McClatchy era about 15 minutes.

The California company announced it would sell The Inquirer in the same breath in which it announced the purchase, so eager was the firm to rid itself of a number of newspapers included in its takeover of the Knight Ridder chain.

So, in spring 2006, the Philadelphia newspaper executives made presentations to six potential buyers, among them an eager group of local businesspeople led by advertising entrepreneur Brian P. Tierney.

"Tierney grabbed me during the course of the day and said, 'We're going to do this,' " former Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News publisher Joe Natoli said in an interview. "I believed him, and wasn't surprised when they emerged as the lead buyer."

On June 29, McClatchy sold The Inquirer, the Daily News, and Philly.com to Tierney's Philadelphia Media Holdings L.L.C.

Since then, a lot has happened, both good and bad.

American newspapers have been rocked by dramatic losses in classified and display advertising, and by the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

In 2007, The Inquirer laid off about 70 journalists, 17 percent of its newsroom. At the end of 2008, it laid off or accepted voluntary layoffs from 33 photographers and editors. In February, the newspaper filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

On the other hand, amazingly, during the last three years the quality of The Inquirer's journalism has been strong - perhaps even improved.

"I definitely think it's a much better newspaper," said James K. Steele, who with Donald L. Barlett forms the legendary investigative team of Barlett and Steele.

Steele credits editor William K. Marimow, hired back to the paper where he won two Pulitzer Prizes, with setting goals and priorities for a talented staff.

"I really thought the minute the paper changed hands and Bill came in, there was a certain energy to the place that it had been lacking," said Steele, who won two Pulitzer Prizes with Barlett at The Inquirer before they moved to Time and then Vanity Fair. "You can never underestimate the importance of leadership from the top."

Ed Trayes, director of the Temple University Master of Journalism program, offered his assessment:

"It's a good paper. It is still covering the bases."

Trayes noticed that the paper is tighter, with smaller pages and fewer stories, but said, "A newspaper's first obligation is to stay in business, and it does what it has to do to stay in business. . . . The people who bought The Inquirer took on a huge public trust. They're trying."

Natoli, now a vice president at the University of Miami, said he thought PMH had been "the best of the potential buyers."

But ultimately, he said, newspapers are going to have to be sized to match revenue, and that will be painful.

Always an optimist while publisher, "I'm less optimistic today," Natoli said. "The historical newspaper business model really is broken. Newspapers need a new business model, and I'm not certain what that is."

According to people familiar with PMH operations, nearly all the local owners, along with additional new investors, are prepared to put more money into the newspapers - about $50 million.

"There is nothing more important to the health of the region, psychologically, financially, than The Philadelphia Inquirer," said Tierney, publisher of The Inquirer and chief executive officer of PMH. "I don't say that boastfully. It's just a fact."

Looking over the last three years, Tierney said, filing for bankruptcy was a major disappointment and "every layoff was hard to make."

But there's much to be proud of, he said.

"The newspapers themselves are better than the day we walked in," he said. "If you live in South Jersey or the Philadelphia region and you don't read our papers, you're missing something."

This year, The Inquirer placed two finalists for Pulitzer Prizes, journalism's preeminent awards. The paper won a National Headliner Award for innovation, and claimed the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association's Sweepstakes Award as the state's top paper.

"The best thing we've done," said Marimow, "is to aggressively, creatively and resourcefully cover, in depth, the news of the city, the Pennsylvania suburbs, and South Jersey."

The paper has significantly improved its Internet operation, he said. When Marimow arrived in late 2006, the Web site was a mirror of the newspaper, different only in its means of delivery. Marimow established a morning team of reporters, editors, and photographers to drive news and pictures onto Philly.com.

At the same time, he said, the paper has produced a steady stream of top-flight, difference-making investigative stories.

One disappointment, Marimow said, is that the paper's great journalism has not been a shield against punishing economic circumstances.

The 2007 mass layoff constituted "the most horrific, horrendous day in the history of this company," Marimow said. But having seen the company financial records, "I'm also telling you it was necessary."

PMH was the first consortium of local owners to take control of a major newspaper. That type of ownership was supposed to provide relief from Wall Street pressures that forced cutbacks at corporate-owned papers such as the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the Boston Globe. Instead, economic conditions have proved to be owner-agnostic, damaging to all.

"The people who bought this company are laudable, truly laudable," Marimow said.

Anyone seeking the maximum return on investment would not put money in newspapers, he noted. But the owners invested millions - "a clear demonstration of their public spirit," Marimow said. "They want to have a great news organization here."

PMH chairman Bruce E. Toll said that even now, "there are many Philadelphians who are ready to put up money to keep The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News locally owned."

Toll, a member of the Toll Bros. home-building family, said local ownership was key to the ability to publish a solid, Philadelphia-area newspaper - and that's what The Inquirer has become during the last three years, as it has focused on local news.

The future of the newspaper is unclear, as Tierney battles creditors for control of the company in Bankruptcy Court.

In an interview, Tierney said he was "very hopeful" the local owners would keep the company. If that happens, he said, the newspapers should manage to emerge from bankruptcy without a cataclysmic shrinking of resources.

"I worry about a future where the papers in the near term or long term aren't owned by people who really love them and love Philadelphia," he said. "This paper's been through the Civil War, the Depression, recessions, economic expansion, world wars - and The Philadelphia Inquirer has remained."

Contact staff writer Jeff Gammage at 215-854-2415 or jgammage@phillynews.com.