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

Pretty early on, Tierney realized he wanted to reimagine the role of a newsman. At the same time, thanks to a crashing ad market, his cash flow started falling to levels below what he’d projected in his business plan. He was on the hook for a first-year bank payment of around $40 million — and if he didn’t hit the bank’s performance targets, the interest rate might ratchet up. By destroying the Newspaper Guild, Tierney could free up some cash at the same time he weakened what he saw as a bastion of Old World thinking. And Tierney knew just how to do it.

More than a pitchman, Tierney is a builder of powerful narratives. He began to tell a story about the Guild as obstructionist force. Back in March 2006, he’d talked about partnering with the Guild when he told Editor & Publisher, “It would be a sort of Green Bay Packers kind of ownership” — half a business, half a civic mitzvah. Now, in December, he said, “We all went into this saying this is a business, this isn’t a charity. … There’s an important civic component to it, and it’s something you can be proud of being involved with. But we’re not like folks who buy a sports team that are, you know, just hey, who cares.”

Tierney insisted on concessions from the Guild. He wanted to slash sick time, cut pensions, and eliminate seniority protections — and if he got all that, maybe he’d only lay off 80 or 90 people instead of the threatened 150. And when anyone from the Guild pointed out the gap between what he’d promised and what he was delivering, Tierney just threw up his hands. Number one, he said, nobody could have predicted the ad market tanking like it did. Number two, “We have a press that prints newspapers. It doesn’t print money. … Honest to gosh, I can’t put a bubble around this building and make it 1976. I can’t!”

In December, the Guild threatened to strike, then blinked. It ratified a contract full of concessions, then passed a resolution which read, in part, “Because of their tight-fisted, slash-and-burn, anti-labor tactics, we have NO CONFIDENCE in the new owners’ actual desire to publish great newspapers.” I asked Tierney what he made of the no-confidence resolution. “I don’t make much of it,” he said. “But I do tell ya, if [you] sincerely had no confidence in the management, wouldn’t you leave? I said to somebody, gosh, life is full of all kinds of choices. … If you don’t have confidence, life is too short, and it’s only once and around. I said to somebody, if you’re not happy, find something else. You won’t hurt my feelings. I’m sure you have a ton of other options.” Start a business, like his own father did when he lost his job. “Go teach.”