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

But that was just Tierney’s impression, as an outsider. It wasn’t until he finally bought the papers and got inside that he realized the extent of it, just how much the shelves had been stripped bare. No sooner had he banished the TV cart from the lobby, painted the walls, scrubbed the floors, added wood paneling to the reception desk, replaced the driver’s-ed pull-down with a 54-inch flat-screen plasma, than he discovered there was no employee manual. No performance reviews. Some of the trucks were 20 years old. The computer technology at the printing plant was 14 years old. The Inky’s culture was adaptive to a different kind of media world, the Old World of buildings and institutions.

Journalists, especially. The way they thought was so alien to Tierney. Most of them seemed happy to be semi-anonymous cogs in a big, important machine. To Tierney, this was as counterproductively Old World as the crappy TV cart in the lobby. Journalists weren’t journalists anymore. They were brands. That’s what the New World of media was all about: bytes and brands. Tierney didn’t create the New World. He just lived there. And now that he, Brian Tierney, not some distant dysfunctional corporate overlord, had control and responsibility for these papers, he’d make sure his journalists learned to live in the New World, too.

ONCE UPON A TIME, individual impressive sonofaguns were the only ones who owned newspapers. Not public companies. Press lords. Men accountable only to their bankers and their ambitions. The press lords were eccentric weirdos with strong opinions about public life and the means to inflict those opinions on entire cities. Jack Knight of the Akron Beacon Journal, a playboy who became one of the 20th century’s most eloquent voices for press freedom, used his paper’s influence to end the great Akron rubber-factory strike of 1936. Henry Luce of Time thought Mussolini was an okay guy, and said so. The owner of the Chicago Tribune, Colonel Robert McCormick, believed that FDR’s New Deal was secretly Trotsky’s doing. William Randolph Hearst dated chorus girls, ran for governor, and started a minor international war; he also defined the populist style of urban newspapering.

Hearst’s life was dramatized in the 1941 movie Citizen Kane, which tells the story of Charles Foster Kane, a fictional press lord who conquers the world yet dies alone in his vast castle, surrounded by thousands and thousands of objets d’art. With his last breath, he utters a single cryptic word: “Rosebud.” Everyone spends the movie trying, in vain, to learn what he meant. It turns out that “Rosebud” was Kane’s childhood sled. Although Citizen Kane is fiction, it speaks to the reality of American newspapers in the press-lord era. If you wanted to understand a particular paper — what it held sacred, what it ritually ignored — you had to understand the motivations of the man who owned it. The chip on the man’s shoulder, the mote in the man’s eye. The secret spur of the press lord. Rosebud.

The Inky took a backseat to no paper in the kooky-owner department: founded in 1829 by two idealistic Jeffersonians; sold, almost immediately, to a Bible publisher; sold to a British telegraph operator, then passed to the Brit’s whiskey-drinking, yacht-sailing son; sold in 1936 to Moses Annenberg, a skull-cracking Prussian immigrant who’d been a bully boy for Hearst and made his fortune publishing racetrack odds for Mafia bookies; passed from Moses to his shy, insecure son Walter in 1942; brought to editorial ruin by Walter, who kept a literal blacklist of Those Who Shall Not, Under Any Circumstances, Be Written About.

In 1970, Walter Annenberg sold the Inky to Jack Knight. Knight was the rare press lord content to hire good journalists and hand them the keys. While Knight continued to live in Akron — and while his company gradually morphed into the corporate behemoth that came to be known as Knight Ridder, echoing the broader transfer of power and ownership from press lords to public companies known as “chains” — Knight’s Inky editor, Gene Roberts, ran the show at 400 North Broad. Roberts was an accomplished and inscrutable ex-New York Times correspondent. He got to work hiring a brilliant staff. As his number two, he brought in Gene Foreman, a laconic Arkansas kid with a gentle drawl. The Two Genes nurtured reporters of large and still-forming talents — Bill Marimow, Donald Barlett, James Steele, Richard Ben Cramer — then set them loose. Under the Two Genes, Rosebud was a code of ethics. Rosebud was the 4 p.m. news meeting. With working journalists at the reins, the paper raked in 17 Pulitzer prizes.