THE TASK FACING GREG OSBERG WAS MANDATORY: Address a room full of union leaders suspicious of his intentions, and win them over. Never mind that such a goal seemed unattainable.
For the past 18 months, ownership of Philadelphia’s most prominent newspapers had been the subject of a legal hair-pulling match. The Teamsters seemed to present the greatest challenge, because the side they favored, the Brian Tierney-led local ownership group, lost. So from their perspective, Osberg had arrived in 2010 as an empty suit, the living embodiment of the faceless banks that won control of the papers following bankruptcy proceedings. He was here, most likely, to pillage their benefits and prune their staffs.
Just the same, Osberg made his best pitch. A lifelong media executive with stints at U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek and the tech site CNET, Osberg speaks in a language that’s jargon-heavy. He talks airily about his “vision of the future,” peppering his sentences with new-media corporate-ese like “content delivery platforms,” “digital media solutions” and “building in value for the consumer.” The Teamsters were just one of 11 unions with which he needed to negotiate new contracts. And when Osberg finished his initial address to the Council of Unions at the Teamsters Hall, Teamsters Local 628 president John Laigaie responded with a far more concise message.
“Fuck you,” said Laigaie, “and your vision of the future.”
Osberg’s response circulated among the denizens of the Inquirer building in various forms, some no doubt apocryphal: “I think in time you’ll come to see my vision will work for the newspapers, and for you,” goes one version. In another, likely closer to the truth, Osberg didn’t react at all. He just sat there, smiling beatifically, as long-time Philadelphia newspaper executive Bob Hall leaned over and whispered: “Welcome to Philadelphia.”
IN HIS FIRST COUPLE OF MONTHS AS BOSS, Greg Osberg hadn’t given his 2,000-plus new employees much detail on his plans for the future. And so an anecdote like the Teamsters one, complete with the drama of an F-bomb, helps build a narrative about the new guy. So, early on, the words used to describe Osberg were mostly mellow: Easy-going. Unflappable. Friendly. Affable. If not a veritable Prince of Peace, how about King of the Mild?