“I dreamed of probably being a lawyer,” Tierney continues. “Where I grew up, that was a pretty elegant job to have.” Tierney’s roots are modest—his mother, of Italian extraction, worked as a waitress and his Irish American father owned a glass shop. One of five sons, Tierney was a scholarship student at Episcopal Academy, an elite suburban day school that his friends say was transformative for him. He later spearheaded an ambitious fund drive for the school’s new campus in Newtown Square.

At the University of Pennsylvania, he majored in political science and courted his future wife, who’d transferred to Penn after meeting him. But he wasn’t quite ready for his dream of law school. (Years later, he would earn a degree from Widener University School of Law by attending night classes.) Politics called to him: During high school, he had run unsuccessfully for Springfield Township Commissioner, as a Democrat. After graduation, Tierney moved to Washington and worked for the local elections division of the Republican National Committee. “It was fun because you were learning about research and targeting,” he says. In 2003, he chaired the Republican Sam Katz’s losing race for mayor.

When Mary Stengel Austen met Tierney, he was the head of public relations at Lewis, Gilman & Kynett in Philadelphia. When he left to start his own agency—the first of four companies he would found and then sell, becoming a millionaire in the process—she followed. She cites his “incredible work ethic,” which she says includes valuing the work of others. “Brian sees around corners,” says Austen, now chief executive officer of Tierney Communications. “Never count him out. When he is against the wall, he is at his best.”
While Austen saw the fierce drive to succeed, David F. Girard-diCarlo, chairman of the law firm Blank Rome and an early mentor, glimpsed Tierney’s fear of failure. Before Tierney launched his first company, Girard-diCarlo remembers “Brian with his unlit cigar walking around the conference room pacing and worrying about how he was going to be successful and whether he was going to meet a payroll and where he was going to get his clients.”

By the time he represented the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, in the mid-1990s, that anxiety had morphed into ferocious self-assurance. The Inquirer reporter Ralph Cipriano’s aggressive coverage of archdiocesan finances aroused Tierney’s ire. In meetings with Cipriano’s editors, Tierney “came across as a bully who was totally disrespectful of the reporter, the paper, and the process,” says Phillip Dixon, a former Inquirer managing editor and now chairman of Howard University’s journalism department. “He was in for the win by any means necessary, and so what about collateral damage.” The damage, in the end, was considerable: a divided newsroom, the end of Cipriano’s Inquirer career, and a reported multimillion settlement paid out to Cipriano by the company.

“I’m a zealous advocate,” says Tierney, unrepentant. Now, he says, “I’m zealous for this paper.”

In part because of that history, Tierney made much of a written pledge, signed by him and all the investors, not to attempt to “influence or interfere with the editorial policies or decisions of the publisher.” With equal fanfare, then editor Amanda Bennett set up a committee to monitor coverage of the investors, including the new chairman of Philadelphia Media Holdings, the homebuilder Bruce Toll. When the personable publisher of the two newspapers, Joe Natoli, left for a job in Miami, Tierney named himself publisher of both papers. (In May, he named Mark Frisby publisher of the Daily News and promoted himself the president and CEO.)

By the fall of 2006, Bennett was gone, and Marimow decided there was no need for the noninterference committee. “I want Brian to be a presence in the newsroom,” he says. He notes that the Inquirer has not flinched from covering a controversy about whether executives in Bruce Toll’s company are overcompensated, and that “having a publisher who can provide story tips and perspective is valuable.”

Tierney can be aggressively hands-on. When the paper launched a new Chester County section in November, before Marimow’s arrival, Tierney traveled to West Chester, the county seat, to hand out free newspapers. Then he realized that the section contained no Chester County news: “I said, ‘We’ve got a Chester County section. We’re selling Chester County advertisers. I’m running TV commercials saying, ‘Chester County.’ You promised me you’d create a Chester County section.’ It was a promise not kept.”

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