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

That’s not true of Tierney. Tierney is keenly interested in the newspaper itself. He could even be said to have journalistic instincts of his own. “He holds many of the same traits as really great reporters,” says Eric Hollreiser, a former Tierney colleague who used to be a reporter himself. “And I think had his life gone a different path, I can see him as a really great reporter, partly because of his ability to digest massive amounts of information, understand it, turn it around to tell a really compelling story.” Tierney, unlike Annenberg — and unlike Bill Marimow, too — is out there in public, furiously stamping his own image onto the brand. He is the living example of the self-promoting New World journalist he’s trying to lure to the paper. By telling a more novel and broadly attractive story about the future of journalism than the journalists themselves, he can replace the traditional values of journalism with Brian Tierney’s values. He can change everything.

The last Inquirer figure with a goal this large, this ambitious, wasn’t Walter Annenberg. It was Gene Roberts: he of the 17 Pulitzers, the Inky’s enigmatic Golden Age king. If the comparison seems inapt, it’s only because Gene Roberts molded his ambition to fit a different era, which is why it manifested itself so differently when it was all splayed out.

Richard Ben Cramer tells a story about what the Gene Roberts ambition looked like. Cramer is one of the greatest Inky journalists of all time. In 1979 or 1980, he’d just gotten back from one of his reporting trips to the Middle East, the foreign-correspondent work that earned him his Pulitzer. One night, he was hanging out at 400 North Broad with his girlfriend, who also worked at the Inky, when she got the idea to go check out 440 North Broad.

Four-forty was the building where Annenberg had launched TV Guide. It was a flat, blocky industrial space, connected to 400 by a series of tunnels. Cramer and his girlfriend walked over and started poking around in the low light. The building was empty, except for this forklift they could hear rumbling around somewhere below them. Curious, they walked downstairs. Eventually they approached some kind of a mezzanine balcony that overlooked a pit the size of the Colosseum floor. They stopped, looked down. That’s when they came upon the visual so striking that Cramer still remembers it more than 25 years later: a whole vast warehouse floor, covered, end to end, with steel honor boxes — the kind that dispense newspapers on the street. Just thousands and thousands of honor boxes in endless semi-random rows. Cramer couldn’t believe how many the crazy bastard had stockpiled. They still wore the names of the dead papers they’d come from. Roberts must have been hoarding them in anticipation of some massive, as-yet-unannounced, brute-force Inky expansion. And the thought came to Cramer, in an intuitive flash, seeing those honor boxes all silent and purposeful, like a massing army: Roberts was creating this giant engine of publishing.

Brian Tierney is the Gene Roberts of today. Just as Roberts reimagined the role of the big-city newspaper for his time, Tierney is doing it for ours. The difference is that Tierney doesn’t need a warehouse floor to demonstrate his idea. He just needs a whiteboard, a flip pad. He’s not deploying an army of honor boxes. He’s not building an engine. He’s dismantling what survives of the old one until there’s nothing too big or too heavy to squeeze through the myriad and modern wires of the era he’s confronted with. His project is necessarily indifferent to the greater good. It has nothing to do with journalism as we know it and treasure it. Tierney is, at heart, a visionary.