Brian Tierney’s Grand Experiment

Fitting Philly pigs for wings
August 17, 2007

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.

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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.’ ”

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.”

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.”

“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.”

In response, the paper’s top editors dispatched a SWAT team of reporters to work forty-five-day tours of duty in Chester County. “Everybody was confused about what the mission was. There weren’t enough desks or computers,” recalls Art Carey, a veteran reporter who had been writing a column for the Image section. The contract negotiations were going on, layoffs were on the horizon, and “the entire staff was in a state of disarray and demoralized.”

But Carey, who is still writing features in Chester County, says he doesn’t blame Tierney for the redeployment. “I always thought the idea that he would not interfere with the editorial product was ludicrous,” he says. “Why would you buy something that you can’t shape? If I were in his shoes, I’d raise a ruckus, too.”

Carey worries more about the sponsored business column. “It’s a perilous and confusing time for newspapers,” he says. “The question is, how much compromising should be done to ensure their economic vitality? And at what point does that begin to destroy people’s respect for the product and undermine its credibility?”

Tierney makes no apologies for his involvement: “I didn’t buy this to put it in a blind trust. I’m not here to be a potted plant. Does Don Graham”—chief executive officer of The Washington Post Company—“get involved? I think he does. Arthur Sulzberger”—publisher of The New York Times—“do you think he just kind of sits in his office and plays pinochle? No. You’re running an operation. You need to lead it.”

Not long after the layoffs, Tierney hired three freelance columnists: Michael Smerconish, an outspoken radio personality who was already a Daily News columnist; Mark Bowden, a former Inquirer reporter and the author of Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War (1999); and Lisa Scottoline, a bestselling author of legal thrillers. Smerconish and Bowden, both right of center, write for the Inquirer’s Currents section, while Scottoline pens a humor column for Image called “Chick Wit.”

The prospective hires came as a surprise to Chris Satullo, the editorial page editor, who had been discussing a column with Senator Rick Santorum, a conservative Republican. Satullo announced his resignation from the job in June. Tierney “has thirteen ideas in the shower every morning,” including “two great ideas,” said a clearly frustrated Satullo, who will stay on as a columnist and director of the paper’s civic engagement efforts. Tierney, Satullo said, needs “to develop trusting relationships” with his editors and understand that when they challenge him, “it’s not resistance to change talking—it’s experience, and maybe even wisdom, talking.”

Tierney cites his hiring of Marimow, who is well respected in the newsroom, as one of his greatest coups. Marimow has embraced the new mission of excellence in local and regional coverage, putting the Inquirer’s (waning) old ambitions aside. The paper’s sole remaining foreign correspondent, Ned Warwick, was summoned home after just a few months in Jerusalem and is now the Pennsylvania editor. The Inquirer’s onetime Africa correspondent, Andrew Maykuth, and its former national political reporter, Larry Eichel, were assigned to a stellar team covering Philadelphia’s hotly contested Democratic mayoral primary.

Marimow and Tierney also recruited Vernon Loeb, the Los Angeles Times’s investigations editor and a former Inquirer foreign correspondent, as metropolitan editor. Tierney called Loeb’s wife to clinch the deal. Loeb says he had come to believe that “those guys running the Tribune Company were the least innovative bunch I’d ever seen—the same as Knight Ridder. They had one move: diminish the product.” Tierney, by contrast, seemed to embody “all the entrepreneurial qualities that Tribune seems to lack.”

In May, Tierney, in another promotional masterstroke, announced that the Inquirer would sponsor a Sudoku National Championship in October, with the New York Times crossword puzzle guru, Will Shortz, as host. A year from now, he says, his “fervent hope” is to be able to hire more journalists and perhaps even to bring back the Inquirer’s once-admired, but costly, Sunday magazine. “It would make a lot of people feel good about me,” he says.

Meanwhile, Loeb says he told his wife, “If I go to Philadelphia and the place goes out of business in a year, just say what soldiers’ wives say: ‘He died doing what he loved.’ That’s the way I feel about it. If we can’t make it here, with Bill Marimow running the newsroom and Brian Tierney running the business side of the paper, God help this industry.” 

Julia M. Klein is a longtime CJR contributor and a contributing book critic for The Forward. She is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia. Follow her on Twitter @JuliaMKlein.