1978 Called. It Wants Its Newspaper Back

All big-city newspapers have been hurt by the rise of the Internet, declining ad sales, and an economy gone south. But the brain trust at the Inquirer and Daily News has a deeper problem: They think we still need their papers to find out what’s going on

IN THE HEADY early days after Brian Tierney’s ownership group purchased the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Daily News in 2006, one of his new employees saw him walking up Broad Street toward the paper’s headquarters. Tierney wore a mobster-loud pin-striped suit and chomped on a cigar so thick his mouth barely encompassed its girth. A cigar is, of course, never just a cigar. It’s a symbol of success or pretension to it, of a new baby born or a World Series won. Tierney appeared to have earned his cigar. In becoming the co-owner, publisher and CEO of this city’s newspapers, he had won a competitive bidding war and acquired more than just a business. Much more. “It’s legacy-building time,” he told reporters, thus conjoining the fate of the papers and his own life’s work.

Tierney offered himself up as The Man Who Would Save Philadelphia’s Newspapers at a tumultuous time. In the years just before he purchased the Inquirer and Daily News, frequent cost-cutting had become the industry norm. Employees, mostly reporters, were shed like unwanted fat. Revenue was in free fall. Philadelphia’s papers earned the Knight-Ridder chain a $100 million profit in 2004 but only $76 million in 2005, and were on course for just $50 million when Tierney purchased them the next year. But Tierney is a former advertising and public relations executive, and words like “decline” and “fall” aren’t part of his vocabulary. And so the savior walked into the Inquirer building speaking not of retrenchment, but of expansion. He said local ownership would provide an antidote to the toxic requirements of Wall Street, which demanded ever-increasing profits. And when he first took to a podium in the Inquirer building, he made a particularly grand promise: “The Next Great Era in Philadelphia Journalism,” he said, “begins today.” Legacy time.

Now, less than three years later, it’s all gone to hell. Circulation has fallen. In early 2008, Tierney warned union representatives of “a dire situation” if costs weren’t cut by 10 percent. The papers have slashed more than 400 staff members across all departments since he took over. According to Newspaper Guild representative Bill Ross, Tierney once shook up a management meeting by barking “I will not lose my fucking house over this!” And Ross says a couple of people emerged from a private meeting with the CEO claiming that he’d spoken to them, in his 12th-floor office, with a baseball bat in his hands. Ross also adds that in January, Tierney took to patrolling the parking garage, watching to see what time employees were arriving to work and asking managers about those who were late. “That’s what I’m getting calls about now,” says Ross. “He’s walking around the parking garage. If he gets hit by a car, it’ll be his own fault.” Tierney’s ownership group, Philadelphia Media Holdings, stopped making interest payments to its creditors over the summer. Thirty-five further editorial layoffs were announced in December. No one knows what tomorrow will bring — except that some tomorrow could mark the end of Philadelphia’s newspapers.

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  • Ron

    The most prescient comment is that they paid based on outdated formulas. So did a lot of other buyers (Minneapolis, for one). But papers are still quite profitable on an operating basis, so Chapter 11 is a real and logical possibility. Tough on the creditors, but once the debt service fits the value, papers just may come out OK. Still, new management may be needed to make newspapers more than the "legacy" toys of outsized egos.

  • Diana

    In suggesting that print media is an old man's game, you forgot that Jared Kushner (Mr. Ivanka Trump) bought the NY Observer for $10 mil in 2005. He was about 24 at the time.

  • Lisa

    The DN and Ink might want to try what other newspapers have been relying on to sell papers and advertising for hundreds of years now, through good times and bad — actually writing for the people who buy it and need to advertise. While fashionable, circa 1974, to "afflict the comfortable," it is in fact the comfortable who read papers and advertise. Those of us who live in the city find that not every nonprofit is honest, not every public housing resident clean and sober, not every homeless guy just a man in need of one good break and a sandwich to turn his life around. Not everyone who wanted Obama to win was ready to start a "race war," if he lost (Fatimah Ali), not everyone who loses a house to foreclosure could ever have managed a mortgage and ownership on even the most favorable terms (Fatimah Ali lost her house because she lost the paperwork needed to refi). Not everyone thinks that Kenny Gamble is great, Odunde is worth the tax payer dollars, and that OHCD provides critical serv

  • david

    You should take the advice of Stu Bykofsky and not GIVE the paper away on line. that includes Philly Mag! i was just able to print the article that Steve Volk wrote in there about the newspaper, "1978 Called", for NOTHING!!!! why but if i can get it for free?! its been peoples mentality for how long? i wanted to get the obituary of a cousin that died in Utah and i got a very small taste of it but when i went to look at the whole thing, I HAD TO BUT IT FOR $13!! i think Tierney should SERIOUSLY think about going that way.

  • Will T.

    "Prospective clients feel the diminution of the newspaper simply by picking it up. And they understand that fewer pages mean fewer other businesses are advertising" Same can be said for Philly mag, the January issue had as much the girth as a Sunday church pamphlet. All print media is dying fast, a city magazine in a dwindling city is no exception.

  • Jim

    Newspapers have less than maybe at best 10 years of life. I was a journalist for 30 years – worked at the Inquirer 20 years – I would never ever ever for a $1 million go back!! The management treat people like dirt! I entered health care and I wake up happy every morning – blessed to be away from the stress of wondering if today is the day the paper closes. Please – reporters and photographers – GET OUT NOW!!! No one – NO ONE – who has left would ever return- I dare the magazine to find even 1 person who regrets leaving the newsroom!!!God bless the poor souls still working at the Inquirer!!

  • Anonymous

    The Inquirer doesn't need a bailout, it needs to stop publishing. This latest tactic proves the paper has no credibility. I stopped it two years ago when they ended the suburban coverage. They treated their suburban staffers, who battled the company and the guild for equal pay, like second class citizens, and then they laid them off. Some were there for twenty years. And let's not forget the age discrimination suit by the seven writers that was settled out of court. The Wal-Mart of newspapers is a joke, and needs to call it a day.

  • Hannah

    I cancelled my Inquirer subscription because there was no paper there – a virtual pamphlet with some stories from the AP newswire. What kind of a city has such a poor newspaper?

  • Robert

    I am a fanatical business news reader and I want to know how THE paper in the 5th largest city in the country routinely has less than 3 pages to its business section?

  • Nikola

    The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily news are low-quality publications that are full of sloppy journalism and errors. Having an egomaniac mismanaging at the top isn't helping either.

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  • Mike

    Well, I just read this entire 10-page story. It was fascinating. I loved it. And I didn't pay a single cent for it, nor does it compel me to subscribe, and … were there ads on any of the pages? I didn't see them. So, how exactly is phillymag going to sustain its own future again?

  • Nancy

    I watched Tierney for years on the local Sunday morning new show and all I saw was his irrepressible arrogance – no charisma in sight. Defending the indefensible Catholic church in the abuse scandal, all the so-called Republican values of cut-throat capitalism – who could fail to see what the paper would come to? I could never have predicted John Yoo though. That's typical Tierney. Let him live with that legacy.

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