Life with Brian
When it came to dealing with newspapers, PR man Brian Tierney was known as a bare-knuckled advocate who would bully and intimidate if that’s what it took to get his way. Now he’s the CEO of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News. Rather than running for cover, journalists are hoping his energy, optimism and connections will breathe new life into the long-suffering former Knight Ridder papers.
By Rachel Smolkin
Brian P. Tierney, the head of an investors group that in June purchased the whipsawed Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News, understands the importance of image. When I meet him in late June in a windowed 12th floor conference room in the newspapers' shared building, he speaks passionately yet carefully about his new purchase, politely countering his detractors "with all due respect," pledging for perhaps the thousandth time that he will not interfere with news stories and insisting he'll be particularly sensitive to staying out when coverage concerns one of his numerous former public relations and advertising clients, from Verizon to the Pennsylvania State Lottery to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
The image he puts forth this afternoon is one of a responsible steward whose privately held company can be trusted to guide two important civic institutions into the future. He also projects three qualities that in recent years have often been absent in discussions about newspapers' future: energy, optimism and ambition. Tierney is a dreamer stepping into an industry so shackled by its despair that it often seems more preoccupied with writing its obituary than imagining its future. If bold business vision and vigorous marketing provide the antidote to this torpor, then Tierney's stewardship could not only revitalize Philadelphia's papers but also provide a model for other owners struggling to reposition their newspapers and reinvigorate advertising in an era of transformation.
If Hollywood is searching for a compelling newspaper script – and there hasn't been a decent newspaper movie since Michael Keaton and Glenn Close came to blows in "The Paper" in 1994 – it could hardly do better than Tierney taking over the Inquirer. Consider: The Inquirer, once a Pulitzer Prize-winning colossus, and its rival sibling, the Daily News, a gritty tabloid legendary for its sports and sauciness, suffer mightily under harsh budget cuts as corporate owner Knight Ridder struggles to meet Wall Street's unceasing demands for higher returns. Restive shareholders force a Knight Ridder sale, and McClatchy, the buyer, immediately announces that it will shed 12 papers in stagnant markets, including Philadelphia. Demoralized journalists brace for more bad news.
Enter Brian Tierney, a Philly PR and ad maven, a Republican activist, a force in the city's corporate, civic and religious communities, and a sometime Inquirer nemesis. Savvy, dynamic and aggressive, a brawler in a city overflowing with brawlers, Tierney is unabashed in advancing himself and the institutions he represents. In the past he has clashed bruisingly with the Inquirer and its reporters to promote his clients' interests. Now he proposes to make representation of the paper and its journalists a full-time mission.
Tierney forms a group of local investors, diverse in backgrounds, gender, race and politics, with ties to some of the largest business interests in the region, including luxury homebuilders, car dealerships, a diet-food company and a union pension fund. They form Philadelphia Media Holdings, with Tierney as chief executive and spokesman. On May 23, they pull off a dramatic victory – portrayed by the group's advisers and the media as a major upset by the underdogs – against five out-of-town suitors. In a city that prides itself on its parochialism almost as much as its cheesesteaks, Tierney's group wrests control from an outside corporation and brings it back home. The group agrees to pay $515 million in cash and assume pension liabilities of $47 million in exchange for the 350,457-circulation Inquirer, the 116,590-circulation Daily News, the papers' shared Web site (Philly.com) and a variety of weeklies and community publications.
Tierney holds a masterful press conference, telling assembled staffers, "I really do believe from the bottom of my heart that the next great era of Philadelphia journalism begins today right here in this room." He confronts concerns about conflicts of interest and his tumultuous history with the Inquirer, announces that the investors have signed a pledge not to interfere "with the editorial policies or decisions of the publisher" and promises a new era of investment. His candor and enthusiasm give many staffers hope.
How does the script end? Hard to say. Option 1: The investors succumb to their worst impulses. They tamper with the news and squeeze greater and greater financial returns out of their new properties, further diminishing the papers. They install more pliable newsroom leadership. Tierney's penchant for advocacy proves incompatible with the neutrality and fact-gathering so essential to journalism. He is unable to shift his energies from controlling news – even suppressing news – to championing aggressive coverage.
Option 2: In classic Hollywood style, the hometown team saves the day against the odds, rescuing the Inquirer from desperation and the Daily News from obliteration. The investors remain faithful to their pledge, create buzz about the papers among their neighbors, boost circulation, invest in the Web site and attract advertisers. They usher in a new era of vitality in the Philadelphia media and create a model for an industry in the throes of transition.
Achieving success will require a dramatic change in attitude, in presentation, in spin , an area in which Tierney excels and newspaper people traditionally do not. "Oh, my God, I think you guys just beat the hell out of yourselves," Tierney says, when I ask if the industry has done an ineffective job marketing itself to the public. "For whatever reason, broadcast journalists don't beat up their business the way print journalists do. I know you're all journalists, but sure I'll tell you what..we really enjoy knocking the stuffing out of ourselves and our business. We talk about, 'We're losing circulation.' We're gaining eyeballs " – when the growing online readership is factored in.
That prevailing expectation of doom, Tierney says, "becomes the reality."
Tierney, 49, is the fourth of five brothers. He spent his early childhood in Upper Darby, a largely blue-collar Philadelphia suburb; his family moved to the more affluent suburb of Springfield when he was seven. His father, James, was a claims adjuster until he was pushed out of his job in 1969. He then worked in a delicatessen during the day and drove a cab at night until he gathered enough money to open a window-glass company with one of Brian's older brothers. Tierney's mother, Claire, worked as a waitress and owned a coat check concession. Tierney talks warmly of his parents' influence, their always affirming message, "Yes you can; yes you can; you should try it, Brian."
His younger brother, Michael, a partner at the Philadelphia-based law firm Dilworth Paxson, which advised Tierney's investors group on the acquisition, recalls, "There was a lot of love in the household. Mom and Dad were definitely the center of everything." Now that both parents have passed away, Brian plays a leading role in family gatherings, which include Maud, his wife of 26 years, and their sons, Brian Jr., 23, and Bill, 20.
Tierney, who loves to cook, learned by watching his mother. When I meet him, he delightedly rattles off the secrets to a successful hoagie – sharp provolone is a must – and to spaghetti gravy, as red sauce is known in Philadelphia (see sidebar). He revels in the craft of cooking and the closure it offers, a punctuation mark so different from his own work. "[Y]ou go out, you start fresh, you go buy your ingredients, you have some fun going through the market, you come back, you chop, you mince, you sauté, you have good conversation as you're doing it, you're tasting, tasting, trying it. You put this thing out, and everybody enjoys it, as a family you [gather] around. Then you clean up, and the kitchen's clean – and I help with the cleanup, too..and then, it's over."
Tierney attended private schools, first Waldron Academy (now Waldron Mercy Academy), a Catholic elementary school in Merion in the city's Main Line suburbs, and then Episcopal Academy. During his senior year at Episcopal, he ran for Springfield Township commissioner and lost with 34 percent of the vote. That was Tierney's first and last run for public office. Michael Tierney says that in the past, a political bid was always "in the back of [Brian's] mind because he does love politics; he loves civic affairs. Now, it's a lot different because he's in a different role."
Tierney majored in political science at the University of Pennsylvania (his wife and son Brian also are Penn graduates; Bill is a student there). At 22, he moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked for the Republican National Committee, and then returned to the Philadelphia region as a Reagan appointee in the U.S. Small Business Administration's public affairs office. He also picked up a law degree from Widener University.
At 27, he launched the first of three successful public relations and advertising firms, each of which he eventually sold to larger, publicly traded corporations. He started his second with four people in 1989, absorbed a sluggish advertising business in 1994 and built the combined firm into one of the mid-Atlantic region's largest and most influential. His team created the award-winning ad campaign for Verizon featuring actor James Earl Jones. They wrapped a giant hoagie around Philadelphia's City Hall to promote the heretical idea of buying hoagies not from one of the city's ubiquitous and beloved hoagie shops but from a convenience store – the region's popular Wawa. They coined the slogan "Philadelphia: The place that loves you back" for the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation.
Tierney recalls with particular relish a campaign he handled for PECO Energy (now part of Exelon), which was being threatened with a hostile takeover by Enron. His agency put together a TV campaign featuring David Leisure, known for his smarmy "Joe Isuzu" character, the lying car salesman in a series of Isuzu ads. Leisure appeared in a cowboy hat and chaps – the ads included every outrageous stereotype of Texas that Easterners could conjure – to announce he'd been hired by an out-of-state energy company, and employees would be better off with him. Tierney's team also dug up a little-known quote from now-infamous Enron CEO Jeffrey K. Skilling declaring the way to take over a company is to buy the assets and get rid of the employees. They put the quote on a 30-foot-wide banner and hung it in PECO's lobby.
"He is kind of scrappy; he can be very intense; he's relentless," says Mary Stengel Austen of her former boss. Austen is president and CEO of what is now called Tierney Communications, although the firm is currently owned by Interpublic Group in New York and no longer associated with Tierney himself. Austen says Tierney is adept at assembling teams, has high expectations for his staff and little patience with laziness or inadequate preparation. "He likes people to challenge him," she says. "He can sniff it out pretty quickly if people are trying to blow smoke and make him feel good. He really doesn't like that." Austen enjoyed Tierney's self-deprecating sense of humor and his boyish, contagious enthusiasm. "He is very good at rallying people around a common sense of direction," she says.
In 2003, Tierney founded another public relations firm, which he then sold to the credit card company Advanta, a former client. He became vice chairman at Advanta, but his tenure there was brief; he says the position didn't work out the way he had hoped. "I think part of life is when something doesn't [work out], you know, when you come to that realization, to just move on and do the next thing." (Advanta Chairman Dennis Alter declined to comment.)
As he built his publicity businesses, Tierney remained active in Republican politics. He has contributed more than $200,000 to state and national campaigns in the last decade, according to the Inquirer. (Tierney says he'll end his political giving in his new role as chief executive of Philadelphia Media Holdings.) He landed a regular spot as the conservative voice on "Inside Story," a weekly public affairs show on WPVI-TV, the local ABC affiliate.
Tierney also became a fiery defender of the archdiocese, a role that strengthened his political clout. In 1998 Pope John Paul II honored his service by naming him a Knight of the Order of St. Gregory the Great, and in 2000 Tierney spearheaded George W. Bush's outreach to Catholics during the presidential campaign. "With the adman's help, Bush tallied almost two million more Catholic votes than Bob Dole got in 1996, leading to victories in key states like Ohio and Missouri," Philadelphia Magazine wrote in a 2001 profile. "Even more significantly, Tierney played a pivotal role, maybe the pivotal role, in Florida."
In 2003, Tierney chaired the third unsuccessful mayoral bid of local Republican businessman Sam Katz, who was doomed by revelations that the FBI had wiretapped the office of his opponent, Mayor John Street, an African American Democrat in a heavily Democratic city where the Bush administration is decidedly unpopular. Street hammered Katz, 58 percent to 41 percent.
Tierney's involvement sparked a highly publicized tiff with Democratic political consultant Neil Oxman, who had worked on the 1999 bid of Katz, his longtime friend, and had planned to do so again in 2003. Instead, Oxman left the campaign and declared he would rather chew broken glass than work with Brian Tierney. "I realized after a month of going to meetings that Brian was essentially full of bullshit," says Oxman. He had thought from watching Tierney's TV punditry that "things he said on the show were silly and cartoonish some of the time, and he knew really not very much about elective politics... When I got to work with him on the campaign that corroborated what I felt about him."
Oxman calls Tierney an "incessant, shameless self-promoter" but also credits him for his long-standing charitable and civic work and for building a successful ad agency during a period when the advertising industry in Philadelphia was languishing. He is pleased to see local ownership of the papers but warns against turning the Inquirer into another Union Leader, the famed conservative mouthpiece in Manchester, New Hampshire. If "these guys start, whether six months or a year from now, trying to exert editorial control over the papers, they should be publicly beheaded and their heads stuck on a pole outside the town gate," Oxman proclaims with vintage Philly bluster.
Katz himself speaks fondly of his former campaign chairman, praising Tierney's "unbridled sense of optimism... Brian, at the worst moments, always found something to be optimistic about, and I think that's a tremendous asset for him."
The former candidate recalls a lousy day early in the campaign. He was getting sued; he had been ambivalent about whether to run; he had proposed an overhaul of Convention Center authority that had infuriated the unions; his dog had run away. He was on the verge of dropping out of the race.
Katz showed up at Tierney's office at 3 p.m., and Tierney told his candidate that he was scheduled to appear on conservative radio talk-show host Michael Smerconish's show that afternoon. "I said, 'Brian, the dog is missing. I can't go,'" Katz recounts. "He must have thought his candidate was just a wacko. He says, 'Look, suck it up. You can drop out, but you can't not go on the show.'" Tierney rallied his shaken candidate, telling him, "'You're going to be great; you're going to go over there and kick the crap out of them; you know this stuff,' all the things that Brian Tierney can do and that he well may be able to do for the Philadelphia papers," recalls Katz, who pulled himself together for the broadcast and the race.
Tierney also used his energy and unyielding optimism to galvanize the board at Episcopal Academy to buy 223 acres in Newtown Square in suburban Delaware County and move the school there from the campus it has occupied on the Philadelphia border since 1921. The Academy's strategic plan called for acquiring additional land, but some board members felt the roughly $30 million needed for an available parcel of farmland was unrealistic.
"Brian, a relatively new board member, stood up and said, 'Why can't we dream?'" recalls board member and past chair Rush Haines. "He was very articulate and very emotional about it. I can't say it was the most popular position. It was received respectfully, but everyone said, 'That's nice, but we don't have $30 million.'"
But Tierney, who speaks often about his alma mater's influence on his own life, wouldn't let it go. "Brian was essentially saying, 'If we don't make this decision, we have abdicated our duties to the school. The future will be bleak. Now is an opportunity that we have to take. We can raise the money; we can do it,'" recalls board member Fred Haab.
And they did. Tierney and local developer Brian O'Neill assembled a group that worked tirelessly to raise the money (the Academy agreed to sell roughly 100 acres of the new land to a local homebuilder). As the project moved forward, Haines watched Tierney, his cochair on the planning committee, create consensus over sometimes contentious issues such as selecting designers and architects. "He has a very conciliatory style," Haines says. "Brian does not demean people because he disagrees with them."
Some journalists, particularly at the Inquirer, have seen a much different side of Tierney. Many reporters who have interacted with him through the years found him to be a natural schmoozer and a good source. But in his role as client advocate, he also was quick to call high-ranking editors to complain about coverage, at times accusing reporters of being biased, unprofessional, unethical and inept.
The most searing clashes, widely publicized at the time and revisited endlessly since the announcement that Tierney's group would head the papers, involved the Inquirer's coverage of the Catholic Church. Although Tierney describes his representation of the archdiocese as "one-tenth of one percent" of his business, his confrontations throughout the 1990s with then-Inquirer reporter Ralph Cipriano and his editors have come to symbolize Tierney's elbows-out style.
"Reporters, we go looking for the truth. This guy, he goes looking for a wrestling match, and the stronger advocate prevails. If he has to pop your shoulder out of its socket, so be it," Cipriano says. "He doesn't understand what we do. He doesn't respect what we do, and he doesn't think we should be doing it... I don't see how a guy like that can run a newspaper and not just turn it into another extension of the spin machine."
Cipriano describes his former foe as "always the loudest voice in the room. He's very domineering." In one encounter involving Tierney, his associates, Cipriano and senior Inquirer editors, Cipriano recalls Tierney "literally had the floor for the whole meeting, which went on for hours. He was speaking 20 or 30 minutes at a time without anyone saying anything... He's got this fire-and-brimstone preacher way of doing things."
The battles over Cipriano's coverage wrenched apart the close-knit Inquirer staff. Cipriano believed his editors caved in to Tierney's demands to kill stories, and said so. Then-Editor Robert J. Rosenthal told Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz that Cipriano "has a very strong personal point of view and an agenda... There were things we didn't publish that Ralph wrote that we didn't think were truthful. He could never prove them." (See "Out of Control," October 1998.) Cipriano sued Rosenthal, the Inquirer and Knight Ridder for libel; got fired; and later won a reported multimillion dollar settlement.
Asked whether Tierney's handling of that episode typified his tactics, Inquirer columnist Tom Ferrick Jr., the Newspaper Guild's chief steward in the newsroom, offers this assessment: "I think he's expansive, bright, aggressive for his clients, and I think that is true to a power of three or four when it comes to the Catholic Church and the archdiocese because he is a devout Catholic... It wasn't out of the ordinary for the church's aggressive approach toward what it considers to be hostile news coverage, and you add on top of that Brian's aggressive approach for his clients."
Tierney complained, too, about a story Inquirer reporter Nancy Phillips wrote about a hotline established for victims during the height of the priest sexual abuse scandal. Phillips revealed that the toll-free hotline rang in the office of a lawyer the church had hired to field the complaints. In an e-mail to the Inquirer's then-editor, copied to its then-publisher, Tierney called the story "stupid and inaccurate."
"I have to say it was neither," says Phillips, adding that Tierney, an able and passionate advocate, never complained to her personally. "After the story, the diocese agreed to install a separate phone line. The story caused, I think, a positive change."
That June 7, 2002, e-mail also lambasted what Tierney called the "sneaky tactics" of then-Inquirer reporter Maria Panaritis ("Maria something or other," Tierney dubbed her), who was on the team covering the abuse scandal. "I speak with truth when I tell you there is a clear feeling among Catholic leaders that the Philadelphia Inquirer, singularly among all the various news organizations extending from Harrisburg, through Allentown, Trenton, South Jersey and Delaware, has a continual, pervasive and corrosive hostility to the Church. Much to the chagrin of your colleagues, we don't have a 'Boston' type problem here. Please don't try to falsely convey otherwise," Tierney wrote.
Panaritis, who left the Inquirer last year to pursue projects outside journalism, says that she and her colleagues had been trying unsuccessfully to gain an interview with then-Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua. She says Tierney falsely characterized her reporting. "We used utter discretion," she says, "and yet we felt obliged to not compromise the journalistic principle that any high-profile story impacting the public welfare would require." On September 21, 2005, a Philadelphia grand jury issued a stinging rebuke of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, saying its former archbishops, including Bevilacqua, had "excused and enabled" abuse of children for decades.
Two days after the Tierney group's winning bid for the papers was announced, Inquirer columnist Monica Yant Kinney recounted a chilling 2002 lunch with her new boss. Tierney was angry over two columns Kinney had written about "little guys claiming they had been trampled" by Commerce Bank founder Vernon Hill, a close friend of Tierney's. "At lunch, Tierney made it clear he wasn't being paid to bully me. This one, he was doing for free," Kinney wrote. "He barked; I listened. I explained the role of a free press in a democratic society. He barked some more, complaining that I was picking on Hill."
Donna Shaw, a former Inquirer business reporter (and now an AJR contributor), remembers Tierney as patronizing, willing to try anything to make reporters "miss a step, doubt yourself. This is a tactic that he took further than anyone else I encountered in 25 years as a reporter," she says. "From my experience with him, he's not as interested in the facts and responding to the facts as he is in spinning the facts. There's a recasting of facts and an effort to demean you and your work." But Shaw also saw another side of Tierney, his "incredible passion for Philadelphia and Philadelphia institutions."
Tierney's relationship with the irreverent Daily News generally was less contentious than with its more serious sibling. "He's a bare knuckles player in a bare knuckles town, and the Daily News was a bare knuckles kind of newspaper," says Zack Stalberg, its editor for 20 years. "So it took a lot to offend us, frankly. The Inquirer culture was different, and they tended to be more troubled [by] the fact that he would question their judgment or come on strong."
Stalberg, who now runs a civic watchdog group called the Committee of Seventy, wasn't bothered by Tierney's combativeness. "It's true that he didn't play the conventional game of trying to win over the reporter in the trench. He'd do that to a point, but if he felt it wasn't getting him anywhere, he'd climb up the hierarchy," the former editor says. "My sense, and this was one of the reasons I happened to like him, he'd tell you straight out, 'You're screwing me. I'm going to talk to your city editor or managing editor or whoever.'"
Former mayoral candidate Katz's perspective on Tierney's bullying of reporters is one undoubtedly shared by many clients. "He's a heavy-duty guy, and they're just reporters," Katz says. "What the hell do they do? You stick your neck out and run for public office. Some guy comes up to you and asks you all kinds of stuff. You want to bite his head off..... Who cares whether reporters feel like he bullied them, really? They don't mind kicking the shit out of you on the front page of the paper." Katz says he generally has been treated fairly by Philly's papers but adds that the "press has a decidedly double standard about these things, and it stems from the view that they're doing the public's good, and the subject of their inquiry has done the public bad."
What bearing, if any, do Tierney's old spats with reporters have on his future leadership of them? Tierney says he was a vigorous advocate for his past clients, and now will be a tireless promoter of the Inquirer and Daily News.
"I've had hundreds and hundreds and hundreds, if not maybe even a thousand, instances of contact with reporters in this building. There have been two or three times that there has been anything that would be considered contentious," he says when we talk in the papers' 12th floor conference room.
I read him Cipriano's wrestling match comment. "With all due respect, I disagree," Tierney replies. "And I mean that. As a lawyer, obviously, you know, I take a particularly strong view of the importance of the Constitution, the First Amendment, all these sorts of things. These are not just words. These are something that as an attorney you swear to live by, number one, and number two is, I think I have enough humility to know that my truth is not necessarily The Truth. And when I go into situations with people and I disagree with them, I try to always listen to the other side and to realize that I'm not walking down with tablets of stone, and my truth is the only truth."
I ask if he's comfortable having reporters on staff whose coverage he disliked in the past, or called biased. "I'm happy to have them on staff," he begins.
("I don't think many of them are still here," interjects Jay Devine, who helped Tierney start his second business and now has his own public relations shop. Devine is handling the onslaught of press requests for Tierney and Philadelphia Media Holdings and sits to my left as I interview Tierney, who sits at the head of the conference table.)
Tierney adds: "There's nobody in this building who I've said I didn't think they were honest, but there's people I've had disagreements with. I've been around this building for just a couple weeks now. I see these reporters have had disagreements with each other, too... Sometimes people disagree. Certainly in my work environment, in the advertising business, I really valued people who would have principled disagreements with me... I've always been of the attitude that hey, we can have a disagreement today, and as long as you fundamentally respect me, and I respect you, let's go and have a cup of coffee tomorrow. Let's get on with life."
Butch Ward, a former Inquirer managing editor who is now on the faculty at the Poynter Institute, says Tierney's success as a newspaper owner will depend on future performance, not past interactions. "I didn't always approve of Brian's methods because I thought that they became too personal. His attacks sometimes included accusations that reporters were unprofessional, that they were biased," Ward says. "I don't necessarily believe that the methods he used to do his job as a public affairs professional necessarily mean that he cannot be a good newspaper owner." Tierney will need to demonstrate "that he is the CEO of a news organization that values independence and truth- telling in service to the public. Take it from someone who worked in journalism and PR: Serving the public is a different focus." Ward spent three years as vice president for corporate and public affairs for Independence Blue Cross, the largest health insurer in southeastern Pennsylvania.
Former Editor Rosenthal, now managing editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, says that private ownership is the best possible outcome for the papers, and that if Tierney brings the same passion to the Inquirer that he showed for his clients, it could be a great asset. "The big question for everyone is, what kind of distance will he keep in terms of his own very clear interests?" Rosenthal notes the potential challenges that come with Tierney's many connections to the power centers in Philadelphia. "A good owner or a good publisher is going to have story ideas. How they're then carried out by the journalists is another issue. When journalists are looking into something, they frequently find things that no one knew were there."
Jane Von Bergen, an Inquirer business reporter who covered advertising during Tierney's market prominence, describes Tierney as good at his PR job, funny, a schmoozer. "That being said, his job is different from our job. A public relations person has a different goal. We can't fault a public relations person for having the goal that they have, just like you can't fault a defense attorney for representing a mass murderer," she says. "The question will be whether this public relations personality, which I think is deeply embedded in him, will benefit us or hurt us."
Asked about his past tactics in dealing with journalists, she replies that dwelling on those exchanges is "like saying the hunter shoots the deer. Well what do you want? He's the hunter, and there's the deer."
Daily News reporter Kitty Caparella frames the uncertainty this way: "I don't know if a leopard can change their spots. And that's the thing. He's used to creating a buzz, and he'll do it about the paper." Whether he'll want to "put his hands in the paper is something else."
Most striking, though, is how urgently the journalists interviewed for this article, including some reporters who have tangled with Tierney in the past, yearn for him and his group to succeed.
At the Daily News, employees are sick of hearing about their anticipated imminent demise. Tierney, a longtime subscriber, says he loves the tabloid. "He's convinced us that he's going to keep the papers in business and help strengthen them," says Jack Morrison, a Daily News editor and rewrite man. "All the other bidders, they were all out-of-towners. They didn't know anything about Philadelphia, the culture, the character. We were happy to have [Tierney's group] come in."
Wendy Warren, an assistant managing editor at the Daily News, says, "I think we're really excited... All we ask down here at the Daily News is a chance to get in there and compete for readers and win readers' hearts. We're not asking for foreign bureaus or anything like that."
At both papers, staffers are weary of turmoil, of budget cuts, of Wall Street, even of Knight Ridder – "the cold, dead hand of Knight Ridder and the relentless commitment to mediocrity," as the Inquirer's Tom Ferrick puts it. There is a widespread perception among journalists that marketing and promotion of their papers had been distressingly lethargic. They also are eager to see some investment and a plan for growth, and hope that the relentless quarterly demands for high profit margins will ease somewhat under private ownership. At a staff meeting following the May 23 news conference, one employee was heard to exclaim, "Free at last! Free at last!"
"I think that's true because they [Knight Ridder] hated us," Karl Stark, an Inquirer deputy editor for health and science, says of his former corporate owner. "They made it clear in so many ways. We were kind of a real outlier in the company, because of our size, because of our history, because of our abilities. If you talk to any of the corporate managers from Knight Ridder, feelings I think were palpable that we were an arrogant, self-righteous, cocky, money-spending drain on their corporate lives, and I don't believe any of that's true."
Stark drew a laugh from his new boss at the staff meeting by quipping, "So you used to be an S.O.B, now you're going to be our S.O.B.?" But, citing Tierney's record as a creator and a builder, Stark says he hopes Philadelphia Media Holdings will provide a new model for newspaper ownership.
Inquirer reporter and music critic Peter Dobrin provoked Tierney's ire with his hard-hitting coverage of the Philadelphia Orchestra; Tierney's confrontational response included complaints to Dobrin's editors. But Dobrin, too, hopes Tierney will provide much-needed leadership. "If the newspaper needs to change, if we need to develop the Web site, if he has great ideas about how to bring advertising back, let's get on with it," Dobrin says.
"I feel like the newspaper's been in limbo for a while, and for the entire time I've been here" – he joined the staff in 1994 – "we've only known how to make cuts, and I'm really looking forward to rebuilding resources. I'm a lot less concerned about interference in editorial matters than I am about their ability to make this a viable enterprise from a business standpoint. I think that scrupulous attention will be paid to making sure that inappropriate influence is not applied to the newsroom. I just hope they're good at making money and running a viable business."
Inquirer Editor Amanda Bennett says that in some ways, the paper "has been the poster child for everything that's going on in the newspaper business, and in some ways, our challenges have been a little bit more extreme." She ticks off the industry hurdles that her paper encountered perhaps a bit earlier and more publicly: What are the pressures of Wall Street? What is the nature of a metro paper, and what do its readers want? How many journalists can a paper afford to support? What happens when national advertising dries up?
"We at the Philadelphia Inquirer staff here have been through hell in the past decade," Bennett says, "and they want this paper to succeed."
On the week of April 24, five separate suitors visited the 12th floor of 400 N. Broad Street to learn about the business and editorial operations of the Inquirer and Daily News. Wednesday was designated for the home team.
Publisher Joe Natoli was struck by the group's passion, interest, energy, even its numbers. Tierney came in with some 25 investors, lawyers, bankers and advisers, including three former employees of Philadelphia Newspapers Inc., the parent of the Inquirer and Daily News – Sam McKeel, a former general manager and publisher; Bill Sabatino, a past labor relations chief; and Jerome Tilis, a former advertising executive. The sessions ran longer and took on a more impromptu feel than the others, knocked off schedule by the number of questions the group asked. At one point, Tierney turned to Natoli and said, "We're gonna do this."
Gary Pruitt, McClatchy's chairman and CEO, also was impressed by the group's commitment to the papers' future. "Whether both papers would stay open, the interests of the employees and the community, and the future of the papers were all factors in the decision, as was price and speed and certainty that the deal would be completed," Pruitt says. "We felt their hearts were in the right place, and they had the interests of the papers in mind."
On June 29, when Philadelphia Media Holdings assumed control, Tierney and his team were focused on the countless details that come with taking over a company and disengaging a newspaper from a chain: Do the credit cards work? Do the cell phones work? What happens to the employee benefits plans? Who provides newsprint? Who runs Philly.com?
When I meet him, he talks enthusiastically about improving the Web site, in part by adding more video and more sound. Knight Ridder took a "corporate, cookie-cutter approach to the Web," Tierney says, and Philly.com is not up to the standards of washingtonpost.com, boston.com (the Boston Globe's site) or even the much-lauded site of the Journal-World in Lawrence, Kansas (ljworld.com). While Philly.com won't be a paid site, Tierney believes some business audiences and interested citizens would be willing to pay to get what he calls the "deeper dive" – more transcripts, audio feed and other features.
"I have 530 gifted journalists who are experts in everything from foreign wines to foreign affairs," he says. "The information, insights and knowledge they have can be repackaged in a variety of ways to make it even more relevant to the consumer, so if you're really interested in the Philadelphia Flyers, which is our hockey team, or the Eagles, or sports in general, I should be able to think of some creative way to give you more and more of what you're interested in, in a way that you'll want it and you'll be willing to pay to get it...
"We're in an environment where people are spending $3 for a cup of coffee, and we're charging 60 cents for the Daily News and 50 cents for the Inquirer, and we're somehow worried that, you know, 'Are we worth it?' I mean it's crazy. My cable TV bill, my phone bill, my cell bill, all of these different things which you're spending hundreds and hundreds of dollars a month on because they're valuable. So I think there's a way for me to say to somebody, you know, 'Subscribe to the paper, that's approximately $225 for the year. Hey, and for $500 a year, you can have access to reporters' further insights, appropriately developed notes, you know, you can get the whole transcript from that press conference, you can get the whole audio feed from the mayor's or the governor's press conference...you can hear everything that went on in the Flyers' locker room afterwards.'.... So what we become then is more and more an aggregator of all the information in the community.... And that's something we can do better than a Google could ever do it.... Our strength is we know this community better than anyone."
Even before the sale was completed, Tierney had committed to upgrading the 14-year-old software that runs the presses and was considering a $15 million to $20 million investment to add more color to the papers. He planned to commission detailed audience research, including on what sections readers would like to see added or expanded.
Tierney also has union talks to navigate, the first great test of his leadership. All union contracts expire at midnight August 31. Tierney hopes to secure long-term contracts, but rather than negotiate directly, he plans to have Natoli and Sabatino, who will serve as a consultant, handle the bargaining sessions. Early in the process of pulling an investors group together, Tierney contacted Henry Holcomb, a longtime Inquirer reporter and president of the Newspaper Guild of Greater Philadelphia.
"We're going to listen to hear what his perspectives are, what he perceives his needs to be," Holcomb says. "Our members, through the latter Tony Ridder years, have gone too long without a meaningful raise, and there are some agreements, because they were negotiated in a hostile environment, that don't work for either side."
Tierney is moving aggressively to reinvigorate advertising, in part by increasing the papers' visibility with a $5 million marketing campaign. He is busily courting advertisers, meeting them at breakfasts, lunches and dinners – "I've already gained 12 pounds through this process," he quips – and inviting them to join him and Natoli in the company box at a Phillies game.
"There was a smell of death that started to form around PNI, which helped to drive away advertising," former Daily News Editor Stalberg says. He recalls a similar smell clinging to the now-defunct Philadelphia Bulletin in the 1970s and early '80s. Advertisers started to dump the Bulletin in favor of the Inquirer and Daily News because they wanted to be with the winner. "There are intangibles that go into the advertising sales," he says. "I think Brian will be particularly good at making the advertising world, which of course drives everything else, particularly good at at least making them think twice about where they're investing their money."
In Stalberg's civic role, he experienced frustrations with PNI's advertising department firsthand. He tried to place an ad for a ballot question strengthening the city's ethics code on behalf of a group of nonprofits and public-spirited citizens. "In my case, they didn't want to engage in a commonsense negotiation about what our price should be. It was, 'Here's our rate,' and [their] rate was excessive... I believe that in the Tierney era that there's just going to be more flexibility and a willingness to go hard after revenue, even if it's a violation of the existing rate card."
Stalberg says Tierney wants to triumph on this large, high-profile stage, and predicts dramatic changes ahead in both operations and personnel. "He's sending different signals at the moment because he has got to get past union contracts and calm everybody down... His priority here is to be not threatening. Over the next six months or a year, we're going to see a wildly different result," Stalberg says. "He's really success-oriented, and he's going to do what it takes to make that place successful."
Tierney's thirst for success is cited often when friends and associates explain why he wants to lead these papers, as are his zest for gambles that engage his interest and intensity; his appreciation of a promising business opportunity; and his love for the city.
"Brian is at his best when he knows it's a challenge and people are going to be watching him," former coworker Mary Austen says. "He's at his best when he's under pressure, when he knows that the stakes are high. He can be a little bit of a bulldog. He likes to take things on that other people would say, 'There's no way you can do that.'"
Mark S. Schweiker, a former Pennsylvania governor who now heads the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, has known Tierney for 15 years and says he is "truly putting everything on the line here, and I do mean personal wealth and personal reputation... Too many people see Brian through one prism, through one lens. There's a complexity to Brian that has been missed. They see him as Brian the spokesperson, Brian the dealmaker. There's a whole lot of thoughtful work that went into this. This was months in the making. It required a lot of technical help from some pretty prestigious companies. It also required Brian to look at the business and say, 'Can I really be a major force in its regrowth?'"
It is easy to imagine how Tierney's stewardship could be disastrous for the two papers, given the vast potential for conflicts of interest, Tierney's prior battles over coverage and questions about his respect for the role of an aggressive press. Philadelphia's history of local ownership is a discouraging one: Before he sold the Inquirer and Daily News to Knight Ridder's predecessor in 1970, local owner Walter Annenberg used the Inquirer to exalt his friends and pummel or ignore his foes.
Even if Tierney and the other investors honor their pledge and support hard-hitting watchdog reporting on their region's institutions, they may stumble over the same business challenges that have flummoxed others in the industry, unable to revive and sustain local and national advertising, reverse circulation losses and/or counter competition from the Internet.
Their lack of newspaper experience could be fatal, but it also could be transformative, bringing a fresh, bold vision that embraces newspapers' future. When I ask Tierney about his campaign to move Episcopal Academy westward, he tells me that "people get excited about a big idea." He's a traditionalist in some ways, he says, but "you have to have the courage to make a big change if that's what's needed."
Rachel Smolkin (email@example.com) is AJR's managing editor. Editorial assistant Jessica Meyers contributed research to this report. ###