No one expected Tierney, the clear underdog among five potential buyers, to get the papers in the first place. But even before McClatchy Company had snapped up Knight Ridder, Tierney already had a hunch that McClatchy might spin off Philadelphia Newspapers, Inc. and was busy lining up support from his network of rich friends. “Privately, I thought there was not a big chance I was ever going to write a check,” says Michael Hagan, the chairman and chief executive officer of NutriSystem Inc., on whose board Tierney sits. “I was shocked when he pulled it off.”
The initial reports, after the $562 million deal was struck in May 2006, emphasized the irony of the transaction—that a man who had helped spin, not to mention squelch, newspaper stories was now the most powerful force in Philadelphia journalism. Tierney took over with celebratory gusto, to the accompaniment of string bands, T-shirts, balloons, and pledges of noninterference in editorial operations. The slogan he emblazoned on honor boxes and delivery trucks was “Bringing home the news.” He cast himself in the role of the hometown hero, even showing up at a Halloween party in a Superman suit.
To the long-battered newsrooms, traumatized by endless cost-cutting under Knight Ridder, he promised that “the next great era of Philadelphia journalism” was at hand. “His passion is contagious,” says Michael Days, editor of the Daily News, whose staff was thrilled that Tierney had guaranteed the feisty tabloid’s future.
Last fall, the storyline changed again. With national advertising revenue plummeting, contract negotiations with the company’s unions grew contentious. After threatening as many as 150 layoffs in the Inquirer newsroom, Tierney got much of what he wanted: reformed work rules, curtailed benefits, the ability to hire new workers for less pay. But he stunned The Newspaper Guild by nevertheless decreeing layoffs of about seventy editorial employees, or 17 percent of the Inquirer’s editorial staff, including many young and minority reporters. (Tierney, who openly abhors the seniority system governing layoffs, managed to poke holes in it, but not eliminate it.)
The painful job cuts—unprecedented at a paper that was used to the more benign ritual of periodic buyouts—were overseen by Bill Marimow, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and editor whom Tierney had hired to replace Amanda Bennett as Inquirer editor. Marimow, then at National Public Radio, said he had written to Tierney asking to be considered for the job in August after the film Invincible, about an unlikely Philadelphia football hero, had stirred his desire to return to his hometown paper. Even the prospective layoffs—he’d fought similar cuts as editor of the Baltimore Sun, and been fired as a result—didn’t dissuade him. “I knew that for these two newspapers, the Inquirer and the Daily News, to flourish,” Marimow said, “they had to be smaller.”
As it happens, Michael Days managed to convince Tierney not to pare down the Daily News’s already skeletal staff; he has even done some modest hiring. But the Inquirer layoffs, which eviscerated the copy desks and further taxed the paper’s ability to cover its far-flung region, left a residue of resentment. The paper’s roughly 330-person newsroom was now about half the size it had been in the mid-1990s (including both staff and stringers); the only remnant of its fifteen foreign and national bureaus was a two-person Washington bureau.
Tierney “came in with Mummers and soft pretzels and T-shirts,” says John Hall, who lost his job as an Inquirer copy editor and now works for The Wall Street Journal, “and within a few months, we suddenly had become this thing that couldn’t afford pensions or sick time or nearly one out of five of its newsroom staff. He’s a salesman, and he just sells. To me and a lot of people still at the paper, he just has no credibility.”
Jonathan Storm, the Inquirer’s veteran television critic, compares Tierney to Janus, the two-faced god: “One side is encouraging, at least to me and to some who are looking for some kind of motion we haven’t had,” even if it is “motion to be better as a small thing.” Still, Storm says he can’t entirely shake his disappointment at the contract—“this dull ache, this idea that we’re getting ripped off.”