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

On January 3rd, Tierney laid off somewhere around 70 editorial staffers at the Inky. “In my position, you have to say, Where do we need to make the investments? And they’re not easy decisions.” Tierney chose to invest in marketing and in new technology at the printing plant. “I don’t think anybody thinks that the way to turn this around is to hire 500 more people and not market what we already do,” he says, pointing to recent modest circulation increases for both papers as proof the ship is starting to turn. At the same time, Tierney insists that the business can’t be successful “without making the Inquirer as great as we all want it to be.” He likens the Inky to his old ad firm, Tierney & Partners. T&P wasn’t nearly as large as the big New York firms like McCann Erickson, but “pound for pound, were we better than McCann Erickson? Yeah. I mean, the Israeli Mossad is a great force, you know? Is it as large as, you know, other nations? No. Pound for pound, though, pound for pound, can they outpunch anything? Yeah. And I think that’s how we can be great.”

Part of the Tierney experiment, then, has to do with whether he can shrink his Mossad force without endangering the mission — whether he can slash his staff and Revive The Brand at the same time. Of the 70 or so laid-off journos, not all were good or hardworking, but a fair amount were one or the other, and some, like Natalie Pompilio, were both. Pompilio braved the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the streets of Baghdad to file reports for the Inky; she was revered by her colleagues for her prose and her skill with hard-news crime stories. “We keep hearing how we’re going for a ‘quality newspaper’ — in air quotes,” says Pompilio. “But the company’s making it really hard for them to put one out.”

Tierney’s layoffs also made life difficult for other staffs that do the work he has said is essential to Reviving The Brand. Like the copy desk. Copy editors are proofreaders who also write display copy, including Page One headlines. Tierney wants a paper that “pops,” yet he has laid off 13 of the paper’s 45 copy editors — the Inky’s gurus of pop. The layoffs also hit hard in New Jersey. All along, Tierney had said that it makes more sense for the Inky to have good local-news coverage in Jersey than to have a Jerusalem reporter. Well, the Jerusalem reporter has been recalled to a desk in Conshohocken — and the New Jersey staff has been slashed from 27 editors and reporters to just 20. In February, when I called Kurt Heine, the Inky’s New Jersey editor, he told me his Cherry Hill newsroom felt newly empty. “You can see big open areas now. How’s your office space? Need a place to work?”

Still, journos are trying to look on the bright side. Heine says that in a way, the layoffs have been “liberating,” because now he can’t afford to cover “the small stuff” like school-board meetings. Andy Maykuth, who’s covered genocide in Africa and the war in Afghanistan, was reassigned to the city desk, writing stories about fires and Mummers. “In 24 years, I’ve never covered the Mummers,” says Maykuth. “But they were so disoriented, they needed somebody to do that. So that’s fine. … You do it because you’re a pro. … You do it because a guy like Bill Marimow asks you to.” Says Marimow, “It’s all hands on deck. And what that means to me is that everyone is going to have to subordinate their self-interest and their preferences to the needs of the institution. … Roll up your sleeves and put your head down and do what’s required.”