Power Lunch: Brian Tierney Is a Savior. Discuss.

The ex-publisher, ex-PR guru and possible expatriate spills on winning the Pulitzer, losing $10 million, and what he and Rupert Murdoch have in common

When Brian Tierney arrived as publisher (and lead investor) four years ago at 400 North Broad Street, home of the Inquirer and Daily News, the onetime PR king encountered skeptical editorial and labor forces. But his exit in May — after creditors outbid him in a bankruptcy auction — saw tearful regrets and genuine admiration from some (though not all) of those same employees. The New York Times even dubbed him an “improbable savior” for his efforts to keep the papers’ ownership local. I caught up with a between-gigs Tierney for our first extended conversation since he served as chair of my 2003 mayoral campaign bid. Over lunch in August at Shula’s steakhouse in Conshohocken, we talked about what happened … and where he’ll go from here.

Sam Katz: You grew up here, and then one day you get out of bed and you’re running the most influential news operation in the market. What’s that feel like?
Brian Tierney: Intense responsibility. Sitting in Walter Annenberg’s office overlooking Roman Catholic High School, where my dad graduated in 1936, and Hallahan, where my mother went, was a humbling reminder of the seriousness of the obligation to this community.
SK: After a career sitting on the other side of reporters, how was that transition?
BT: Health and science editor Karl Stark got up and said, “Let me get this right. You’ve been a pain in the ass in the past, but now you’re gonna be our pain in the ass?” And that’s the way most folks felt.
SK: By that point, the Inquirer had ceased to be a compelling read. It’s a whole lot better today. How did that happen?
BT: The paper didn’t know what it wanted to be. I was attracted to [Inquirer editor] Bill Marimow because we shared the same vision: to make the paper an essential read with aggressive investigating — not a chronicle of urban pathologies. Bill’s made sure something positive gets printed on the front page every day. And we wanted the Philadelphia Inquirer — not the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times.
SK: But the business model was already sick. And it’s gotten a whole lot sicker.
BT: We carved $110 million out of the cost structure of the business. There were 140 people making more than $100,000 in annual salary. Our labor leaders took note when we eliminated those positions. We rebid every contract, which hadn’t been done in 15 years. Among our peer group, we grossly improved our advertising to be in the top of the pack. And page views on Philly.com went through the roof.
SK: But none of it worked.
BT: Some of the smartest guys out there never saw the tidal wave that engulfed our industry.
SK: Give me your immediate reaction: Bill Marimow.
BT: Other than my wife, my second-best pick in 30 years.
SK: The Inky food section.    
BT: Better than it was, and on its way to being really good.
SK: Sports?
BT: Great. Gonzo and Kate Fagan add to solid players like Ford, Brookover, Sheridan.
SK: Philly’s political culture.
BT: Heaven, I’m in heaven … I guess it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. We’re the only ones doing it; I’m proud of it. These investigative series are not cheap.
SK: It’s been important stuff.
BT: Yeah, but it doesn’t seem like anything really changes. It’s like folks here have developed calluses on issues of corruption.
SK: But there have been some amazing journalistic moments for you in it, eh? The Daily News won a Pulitzer.
BT: When [Pulitzer winners] Barbara Laker and Wendy Ruderman visited the attorney for the FOP while doing investigative work on the bodega series, he told them their story was ridiculous and snidely asked them, “What, you think you’re gonna win a Pulitzer prize for this?”
SK: Did you get snowed by your belief in your capacity to make the newspaper business work here?
BT: Hey, wait. We weren’t even the highest bidder. It wasn’t as troubled an asset as it looks now. Rupert Murdoch wouldn’t pay today what he did when he bought the Wall Street Journal, and his IQ doesn’t change when he walks from the side of the desk where he does Fox to the Journal side. Nobody ever thought there’d be a 50 percent drop in advertising. Show me a business that comes through that as well as we did.
SK: Especially one with the kind of debts you guys put on your balance sheet.
BT: Fair enough. But I wasn’t a promoter getting a fee. I put up $10 million, and that’s lost. I lost my shirt.
SK: And while this is all going on, you found the time and emotional energy to do the Episcopal Academy capital campaign.
BT: We had a great team that raised $200 million for an utterly amazing new campus in Marple Newtown.
SK: Not to mention what you got St. Joe’s University to pay Episcopal for the Merion site.
BT: It’s unmentionable, but it will transform that school as well.
SK: You’ve only ever had success. How are you dealing with the bankruptcy and your loss in the auction?
BT: I prefer “restructuring” to “bankruptcy.” [smiles] We took on too much debt. When this got bouncy, I could have bailed. But I wanted my investors to know I was fighting as hard as I could. When that didn’t hold, I wanted our employees to know the same thing. It was all very painful, but I wasn’t going to abandon the ship.
SK: What helped you get through it?
BT: My mother’s voice just telling me to do “my duty.”
SK: Does failure inform your life more than success?
BT: Give me the choice, I’ll always choose success. But failure is just part of life’s seasoning.
SK: So what’s next?
BT: I want it to be entrepreneurial, media-based, with a strong digital platform — there are some interesting things out there. I love it here, but with our sons out of college, Maud and I have options to try someplace new, maybe in Europe. I’m 53, and I want to do something I’ll really enjoy and own for the next 20 years.
SK: You’re a brand here. You’d walk away?
BT: I want to leverage my talents and take on a big challenge. I’m not sure that’s here for me. On the other hand, traveling through European cities for business is draining, and living here is fantastic.
SK: Could elective office be in your future?
BT: Never! One thing I realized working on your campaign: It wasn’t for me.
SK: Weren’t you close to running for office once?
BT: When I was 18, I ran for Springfield Township commissioner.
SK: That’s the one. And what was the message of that campaign?
BT: “Vote for me. I don’t know anything.”
SK: I guess 35 years later, you’ve learned a few things that could be worth something.
BT: I’m sure hoping so.