Tierney argues that he made the tough choices leaders must make as economic circumstances change. “Here’s the thing that I think gets lost: nobody’s getting a dividend. It’s not going to Wall Street. It’s getting invested back into your business—to do what we’ve done today,” he says, referring to the circulation increase. “Believe me, I feel for every journalist—half of them have come back as freelancers—but I feel for every journalist who had to go, just like I feel for the ten or twelve truck drivers we reduced as well. But in the end, we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do, and keep moving ahead. The dogs bark, the caravan rolls on.”
The first time I saw Tierney was at a March panel on leadership sponsored by Philadelphia magazine. Flanked rather improbably by a local chef, a college basketball coach, and the president of United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania, he walked on stage at the National Constitution Center with a bounce and what appeared to be a trace of nervousness. Perhaps he was still smarting from the magazine’s April profile, which alternated flattery—calling him “a visionary” with “economically sensible” ideas—with suggestions that he was prone to bluff, bully, and deceive. Tierney later called the story “unfair” and “illogical,” taking particular exception to its claim that he was more interested in brand creation than good journalism. “It’s like saying that someone wants to have a great restaurant,” he said, “and doesn’t really care about the food.”
Slightly paunchy, with a round, reddish face and wire-rimmed glasses, Tierney spoke quickly during the panel, frequently failing to finish sentences. His speech had a fragmentary, mosaic quality, as though his thoughts were flying past too quickly to contain. The impression of restlessness was reinforced by his posture. He had trouble sitting still and kept playing with a small black object—click, click—which turned out to be the cap of his bottled water.
I had spoken to Tierney a few weeks earlier on the phone, a long, intense conversation about his facedown with The Newspaper Guild. With revenues plunging—the company had a cash flow of about $55 million, and owed its lenders $39 million a year—“only a fool would say that hiring another hundred journalists is going to solve it,” Tierney said. The contract concessions and layoffs created $21 million in savings, he estimated. Better, he thought, to spend the money on other initiatives: computer upgrades at the printing plant, promotion, the Web site.
“I’m going to use my headphones, so I can pace while I’m talking,” Tierney said at one point. As notable as his energy, though, is his desire to stay in control of the interview and the story—unsurprising perhaps, given his public relations background. When I suggested shadowing him for a day to observe his interactions, his response was curious. “Then I would have to create a phony day,” he said.
After we set a date for a long-delayed face-to-face interview, I initiated the usual calls in search of biography and color. Late one afternoon, the phone rang. “Quit stalking me,” said a deep male voice that I couldn’t quite place. It was Tierney himself, at his most charming.
He had just been invited to an International Press Institute conference in Istanbul to discuss new models of newspaper ownership and needed to reschedule our interview. “You’re coming up on deadline,” he remarked. Only later did I learn that he had omitted one tantalizing detail: on his panel in Turkey would be Tony Ridder, the executive who had shepherded the once-formidable Knight Ridder chain into extinction, and whose management practices Tierney had been decrying all year.
“It wasn’t as if I was creating ads in my bedroom when I was a little boy. It wasn’t like I always dreamed of this,” Tierney is saying. We’re sitting at his office conference table, along with his spokesman Jay Devine. On one wall are copies of newspaper front pages from around the country. In a far corner are Tierney memorabilia: a photograph taken in college with President Gerald Ford, testaments to his entrepreneurial successes, family photographs (his wife, Maud, is a lithe blond, and they have two grown sons), and the first dollar spent in the newspapers’ gift shop under his ownership. A sign proclaims: “You get the culture you’re willing to accept.”