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

Tierney is a master of the bluff. Sometimes it’s a small bluff, specific to a crisis situation — for instance, in late February, when I called Tierney to confirm a tip I’d heard that the Inky’s next opinion columnist would be Rick Santorum, Tierney objected vehemently. No, he said, giving Santorum a column was just a stray, “blue-sky” idea. Tierney would be more likely to give a column to Dan Rather. (“Seriously.”) He left me with the impression that my tip was bunk. I found out later that the talks were actually pretty far along. Tierney and editorial-page editor Chris Satullo had met with Santorum in person. Tierney lied to back me off a story he wanted to announce on his own terms.

For Tierney, bluffing isn’t a mere tactical weapon. It’s a more basic way of operating, close to a life method. He believes there’s nothing he can’t do, even if he’s never done it before. He commits to the impossible thing in the belief he can figure it out on the fly — which usually works, because the people he’s bluffing either lack the right defense mechanisms for unearned confidence of that magnitude, or choose to find it charming. Brian O’Neill tells a story about how, three years ago, Tierney called him on a Friday and asked for a $500,000 check. It was for a deposit on a huge piece of land that cost $31 million: a new campus for Episcopal Academy. O’Neill cut the deposit check. Then, the next Monday, O’Neill asked Tierney when Episcopal would pony up the rest of the $31 million. “He says, ‘Oh, did I forget to tell ya? Episcopal has no money.’ With a big shit-eating grin on his face. So I’m lookin’ at him, and all I can do is say, ‘Okay, let’s go raise the money!’” Tierney disputes O’Neill’s account, saying, “That’s an ‘O’Neill Story.’ That’s not how it happened.”

Optimism only goes so far. Tierney got beat on the Fast Company deal. His bid wasn’t accepted. So a year later, when the Philly papers went on the block, Tierney jumped. “I used to have, in my other office, a quote by Ovid,” Tierney says. “‘Let your hook always be cast; in the pool where you least expect it, there will be a fish.’ It was just an opportunistic thing.”

Tierney started by hooking his investors. They were a wide-ranging and unexpected bunch — “If you were to lay out all the names,” says real estate investment banker Walt D’Alessio, “you’d say, what the hell? Where’s the common thread?” — but the big players shared some characteristics, especially Bruce Toll, Ed Coryell and Bill Graham, the three biggest. (Tierney was only in for around $10 million; Toll, one of the founders of Toll Brothers construction, was in for about $30 million; Graham, of the Graham Company insurance brokerage, was in for $31 million; Coryell, business manager of the carpenters union, invested about $45 million of his union’s pension.) These were all guys like Tierney — “One. Hundred. Percent. Self-made,” in the words of Brian O’Neill.