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.”

“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.”

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