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

And, like Tierney, they didn’t care that they were clueless about the newspaper business. Bruce Toll, vice chairman of Toll Brothers, has embarked on a second career as a peripatetic investor, buying into a biotech start-up, a bagel chain, a chain of for-profit methadone clinics, a for-profit kidney dialysis company and a huge auto mall. When I asked him if the newspaper business was like any other he’d been in, he said, “No. This is the hardest business I’ve invested in. And there’s so much unknown. In methadone clinics, everyone who signs up keeps going for the rest of their life. Once you’re there, you’re there. Same with dialysis. … But with newspapers, you’ve got to resell the newspaper every day, with advertising and such.” Toll is the chairman of Philadelphia Media Holdings. In Toll’s office, there’s a drawing, given to him by his kids, of Scrooge McDuck, the money-worshiping villain from the old DuckTales cartoons. (Toll is a notorious cost-cutter — he says his tactic is to look for costs that can be cut but don’t affect anyone, “like health care.”)

Even Tierney’s own friends didn’t take the bid seriously at first. But Tierney wouldn’t let go. According to O’Neill, Tierney had “wanted to establish a publishing empire for some time,” and he saw Philly’s papers “as a platform for a greater enterprise, kind of like Comcast. And I think you’re gonna see him take that newspaper group and expand it into a massive international publishing empire.” (Responds Tierney, grinning, “From his lips to God’s ears.”) Tierney says he was ready to pull out of the bidding if it rose much beyond $515 million, the final cash value of his team’s bid. But his friends aren’t so sure. O’Neill says that Tierney getting outbid on the Fast Company deal was “the best thing that ever happened to him, because he made up his mind that it wouldn’t happen on the Inquirer.”

Tierney was ready to do something meaningful. What he told his reporters, in early, casual chats, was this: “It’s legacy-building time.” It was a surprisingly bald admission, half insecure and half grandiose. Tierney was a middle-aged guy who was worried about how he’d be remembered. “I thought it was actually a sweet and vulnerable thing to say,” says one journalist. “And because it’s Brian, part of me thought, ‘Is this just what he’s selling today?’ The guy just sells all the time. He’s selling with every breath.”

DESPITE THEIR CYNICISM, most of the journalists welcomed Tierney. He anticipated their fears and dismantled them one by one. Early on, he reminded them that a few of the losing bidders were Visigoths, especially the Canadian group, which later bought the Akron Beacon Journal and slashed 25 percent of newsroom jobs. “We did not model in cuts to buy this business,” Tierney said at a press conference on Day One. “We didn’t buy it to cut it.” (Tierney now denies saying this, despite the fact that we have an audiotape of him saying it. In fact, he now says he did model in cuts; whatever you might say about the Visigoths, at least they were honest about wanting to make cuts.) Later, in a private staff meeting, Tierney referred specifically to the Scary Canadians: “I don’t want to come in here and pick a fight. Maybe if I was looking at a newspaper in Toronto.” He also told the Newspaper Guild — the union representing some 900 journalists, ad reps and circulation employees at both papers — about his working-class mother having belonged to her restaurant-workers union. Solidarity.