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

A few weeks earlier, Tierney had invited Walter’s widow, Leonore, to come visit. She looked at Tierney’s office and told him that Walter’s desk had been in a different spot. Tierney moved his desk. “I want all the good vibes, good ideas, I can get,” he says. But in other ways, Tierney has made the publisher’s suite his own. On the wall, a new sign reads YOU GET THE CULTURE YOU’RE WILLING TO ACCEPT. There’s a red “EASY” button from Staples next to his iMac; when you press the button, a voice says, “That was easy.”

The most powerful motivational object is Tierney himself. He is 50, with soft features framed by wide cheeks and thick brown hair that snaps back when he runs his hand through it. Today he’s wearing a white shirt with the top button open, spilling salt-and-pepper chest hair. After we finish our cafeteria sandwiches, he stands up. He steps to the big white flip pad — “my famous flip pad” — and starts pitching his vision for Philadelphia Media Holdings, which he doesn’t describe as a newspaper company but as “a brand of local news and content.” With a fat red marker, he scribbles a rectangle representing the homepage. He calls it “a shopping mall” of content. To attract more shoppers, Tierney wants a localized version of MySpace; to create more content, Tierney wants journalists to use digital cameras and blogs. “I’m not going to force anybody to do it,” he says, although he hopes journalists will want “to play the game up on the balls of their feet and be excited about it and be relevant.” Explaining what he means by “relevant,” Tierney mentions that when the Mel Gibson DUI story broke last summer, both Philly newspapers covered it on inside pages, “but should have had that as a bigger thing than just a line, because everybody went to Drudge” — the right-wing gossip site — “or CNN.” The website could use its own journalists who only do Mel-type stories, or who shoot their own “silly and fun” videos, like the one where the guy puts the Mentos candy in the Diet Coke and creates a soda volcano. “I love the smile of our own reporters doing those sorts of things, you know what I mean?”

Tierney is just getting started. For the next two hours, he roams all over the 12th floor like a lost gymnast looking for his next apparatus — pointing to things he’s stuck on the walls, new honor boxes, cooler ads, any hard evidence of big changes. He shows me a table lined with dozens of local newspapers Tierney sees as his competition, papers like the Courier-Post and the Burlington County Times; Tierney flips through them every week to check out the ads and see “what’s going on in their communities.” He shows me a prototype of the “Inquirer Express,” a one-page capsule version of the day’s top Inky stories, boiled down to short paragraphs in the style of USA Today and “sponsored” with a large ad from Commerce Bank. (“It’s just a terrific win-win-win.”) Tierney also brags about his deal-cutting acumen, especially his decision to chuck, the papers’ old job-search partner, in favor of Tierney says the CareerBuilder guy “was so rude to us. He kept saying, ‘Tony Ridder, Tony Ridder.’ I said, ‘With all due respect … I’m not Tony Ridder. I’m a little bit more like Tony Soprano.’” Tierney twirls to face his iMac and pops in a CD. It’s a TV ad promoting one of Tierney’s new spin-off sites, Over a bass-heavy beat, an Afro’d rapper sings, “Ain’t nothin’ wrong with a little Philly love.” Tierney lip-synchs along with the rapper and says, “We’re gonna drop a bunch of money on this thing” — $400,000 in the first month alone, for slots on the Sugar Bowl, American Idol and 24.

Tierney’s ideas strike me as creative, economically sensible, coherent, ambitious — but if the Inky journalists I know could hear this stuff, they’d be scared shitless.

But that’s just it. Tierney doesn’t talk this way with his staff. Tierney isn’t telling his journalists how much he admires Annenberg. He isn’t telling them that he thinks the Burlington County Fucking Times is the Inky’s competition. Tierney’s journalists have no idea. So if that’s true, how did this public-relations guru manage, in just a few short months, the impressive public-relations feat of making his 530 or so journalists fear and loathe his impressive-sonofagun guts?