Press Lord 2.0

Can a self-made adman with big ideas and a Walter Annenberg fascination save the Inquirer and Daily News? Maybe. But when Brian Tierney’s finished, the newspaper business may never be the same

It didn’t last. All over the country, the public newspaper chains were losing readers and advertisers to television. Then, while CEO Tony Ridder and the Philly papers slashed their staffs to cope with that reality, the Internet sneaked up from behind with a shiv. If anybody could publish a blog, who needed journalists? If advertisers could sell stuff more efficiently online, who needed print?

And then, at that bleakest of moments, a new type of press lord emerged, singing newspapers’ praises. The new press lord didn’t know the first thing about the newspaper business. He came from the world of philanthropy, or the entertainment industry, or sports, or insurance, or defense contracting. But he had mega-millions to burn. With swagger, he went after the big-game papers in the biggest cities: Los Angeles (philanthropist Eli Broad, music mogul David Geffen), Chicago (Hank Greenberg of AIG insurance), Boston (Jack Welch of General Motors), New York (Greenberg again).

Of course, here in Philadelphia, we don’t have any moguls quite that big. So when Knight Ridder sold out to a healthier newspaper company, McClatchy, and McClatchy decided to dump the newspapers in declining markets, including Philly … well, we had to settle for a savior of hometown dimensions. He confused the hell out of us. Not because we didn’t know anything about him, but because we never pictured him doing this. And compared to a guy like Jack Welch, our guy couldn’t afford to piss away millions on some vanity project. It didn’t make any sense, which is why we all wanted, needed, to know: What’s the hidden motivation? What’s driving this guy? What’s the personal Rosebud of our own Citizen Tierney?

AT THE SOUTH END OF TIERNEY’S new office, there’s a beautiful sunroom, stocked with poinsettias for the season, that opens onto a wide balcony with a view of the Philadelphia skyline. Sometimes Tierney stands on the balcony and smokes a pipe. The pipe is a habit he picked up in college, taking classes at the Annenberg School. When he first bought the papers, he felt strange coming out here; strange to look down at Roman Catholic High, where his father went to school; strange to imagine his mother as a young student at Hallahan Girls’ School, walking past 400 North Broad every day, then, years later, working her hatcheck concession at the Marriott to save for Brian’s prep-school tuition, and all that time never dreaming, “as I wouldn’t have dreamt even a year ago,” that her son would ever be in the position to pick up where Walter Annenberg left off.

When I meet Tierney for lunch, six days before Christmas, the Annenbergs are on his mind. I don’t have to ask him a question. Unprompted, he starts talking about Legacy, the Annenberg biography by Chris Ogden, which Tierney loved so much that he bought a stack of copies to hand out to his employees. “It’s a sweeping story, and it really is kind of the American story,” Tierney says. “This guy” — Moses Annenberg — “comes over, incredible poverty, with a bat in one hand, and off he goes.” Tierney is especially fascinated by the story of Walter, who struggled all his life with a stutter. Tierney also stuttered, until, at age 16, he learned to enunciate by reading Dr. Seuss books out loud with a speech therapist. Tierney volunteers this information. He adds, “It’s exciting, too, to see Walter Annenberg for six months not wanting to occupy this office and then deciding finally to take it over … certain low expectations about what would happen next. … It’s in this office that he came up with the idea for Seventeen magazine, TV Guide.” People told Walter that TV Guide was a crazy idea. “Within four or five years, they’re publishing a billion of them a year, you know?”

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