Pigs weren’t flying around The Philadelphia Inquirer’s historic white deco tower on North Broad Street—not yet anyway. But this was a gleeful day for Brian P. Tierney, even if he’d forfeited the element of surprise. For months, the chief executive officer of Philadelphia Media Holdings had been telling anyone who would listen that the spring Audit Bureau of Circulations figures would show an increase in Inquirer circulation. The rise—the first since 2004—would be small, he knew, but symbolically significant after years of plummeting readership under the penny-pinching management of Knight Ridder, which had budgeted for another 7 percent decline. And it would contrast nicely with continuing circulation drops at other major metro dailies and the Inquirer’s suburban competition.

It would make one hell of a story—and one hell of an ad.

So on April 30, when news broke that average paid daily circulation was up 2,136 (to 352,593) for the year ending in March, the former advertising and public relations guru wasn’t waiting in his twelfth-floor office. He was standing by the elevators, impatient to spin a triumphal tale about this modest 0.6 percent hike. “Who’s having our success right now? Nobody!” he crowed. “Go look at the numbers.”

Only ten months before, Tierney and a consortium of local investors had taken control of the Inquirer, the Philadelphia Daily News, their Web site, philly.com, and several smaller properties from the McClatchy Company. Now, after some nasty detours, the fifty-year-old Tierney had achieved at least the beginning of the turnaround he’d promised. “It’s about setting out an optimistic vision, it’s about focusing on quality in everything that we do—first and foremost journalistically,” Tierney said. He’d hired a stellar management team, he said, and rousted his employees from their chronic malaise. And he was pouring $22 million into the papers and their Web site—$14 million for marketing and circulation alone.

Which brings us to the winged pigs, the metaphor at the heart of the company’s latest promotional campaign: audaciously self-congratulatory, much like Tierney himself, the newspaper, Web, and radio ads touted the fantastical, conventional-wisdom-defying quality of the circulation boost, as well as a 41 percent rise in page views on philly.com and an increase in Daily News home delivery.

This last day in April also marked another milestone: the debut on the Inquirer business front of a column of briefs sponsored by Citizens Bank. In response to outside criticism, Bruce Larrick, the weekend national/foreign editor, called the idea “deplorable” in an internal e-mail, and many staff members agreed. There had been other advertising incursions: a Comcast Cable-sponsored television guide in the Sunday Inquirer, news summaries in both papers sponsored by Commerce Bank, and front-page ads in the Inquirer. And Tierney’s revolution was just beginning.

Take the Web site, philly.com, still a more or less conventional mix of news, blogs, chats, and podcasts. Eric Grilly, the site’s new president, recently added video and said a complete relaunch was planned for later in the year. According to Grilly, creative ways of linking editorial and advertising content would be the key to the company’s online future—and, therefore, its future, period.

As chain ownership collapses, and readers and advertisers desert print, Tierney’s Philadelphia experiment may become an unlikely national role model. Since taking charge a year ago, Tierney has established himself as a twenty-first-century media buccaneer, unafraid—for better and worse—to break old rules. As the real-estate magnate Sam Zell prepares to run the Tribune Company and Rupert Murdoch makes a run at Dow Jones and Company, Tierney is galloping at the head of the wagon train, laden with products he must simultaneously sell and reinvent. (And Rupert had better watch out: in June, Tierney expressed interest in joining other possible investors in a bid for Dow Jones.)

But let’s let Tierney mix his own metaphors. “In this seat,” he declares, pugnacious, embattled (in short, happy), “I can’t have the luxury of sitting in the stands critiquing. I’m the man in the arena.”
He ticks off the challenges he feels he has surmounted: guaranteeing the editorial integrity of the newspapers, negotiating labor contracts, upgrading business operations. “We’ve done it!” he says. “So I keep feeling like we’ve jumped through the hoops of fire. We do that, and somebody says, ‘There’s another one.’ ”

Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a CJR contributing editor.