Why Is Brian Tierney Getting a Big Journalism Award?

And why is there no mention of the Inquirer's bankruptcy under his leadership?

Brian Tierney, May 23, 2006. AP Photo | Rusty Kennedy

Brian Tierney, May 23, 2006. AP Photo | Rusty Kennedy

So: Brian Tierney is getting a big journalism award.


The Poynter Institute announced Tuesday that Tierney — who was publisher of the Inquirer, Daily News, and Philly.com when their parent company went into bankruptcy — is receiving its “Distinguished Service to Journalism” award.

 No, really.

 Guess which word is never mentioned, even indirectly, in the press release announcing the honor?

Here’s a hint: Starts with a “b” and rhymes with “shmankruptcy.”

Instead, his tenure at the helm of Philadelphia’s largest news organization is described like this:

As publisher of The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News, Tierney’s strategic business development efforts were intrinsic to their successes. For instance, as he galvanized shareholder interest and hired respected journalists to restore editorial integrity, he led The Inquirer’s rise to the top of the 24 largest newspapers in the country in advertising performance, while enhancing its journalistic distinction and improving its circulation performance.

That is a very interesting take on what happened during those years: We’re not sure now “advertising performance” or “circulation performance” are defined by the press release writer. What we do know is this: Total advertising revenue at the parent company was $358 million when Tierney took over — and declined every year thereafter during the entirety of his reign. Circulation revenue was $98 million the same year and then spiked at new highs in 2008 and 2009 — perhaps coincidentally, the years the Phillies went to the World Series — before also suffering steep drops as the company slid into bankruptcy.

 His years atop Philadelphia newspapers were summed up a couple of years ago by media watchdog Jim Romenesko: “As CEO of Philly’s newspapers, Tierney paid himself a $350,000 bonus while his Inquirer and Daily News were struggling; and he once asked the bankruptcy court to dismiss a $50 million payment due the pension fund of the Newspaper Guild of Greater Philadelphia.”

But let’s be fair to Tierney: The whole industry went to hell during the decade. Somebody among the Inky’s musical-chairs ownership the last decade or so was probably going to get stuck holding a very nasty bag. Tierney, you could argue, just happened to be that man.

And despite a reputation for browbeating the press during his time as a PR man prior to buying the papers, some journalists at the papers really seemed to find him supportive during his time as publisher. In their book, Busted: A Tale of Corruption and Betrayal in the City of Brotherly Love, Daily News reporters Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker portray Tierney the publisher as a “fearless advocate” of investigative journalism. And he was the publisher when the duo won the Pulitzer Prize for uncovering corruption in the police department.

So there’s that. But there’s also this:

A few weeks ago, Tierney authored an op-ed in the Inquirer, praising the ability of newspaper-based news organizations to reach their audiences. This was a bit odd, in that the only audience that would be reading the op-ed was the Inky’s own readers, who presumably are already sold on the virtues of newspapers.

It seemed like Tierney was selling something. And because it has been widely reported in the past that Tierney has a continuing business relationship with Philadelphia Media Network, I tried contacting PMN and Tierney himself with few questions: Does that relationship still exist? And if so, why wasn’t it disclosed to readers in the column? Newspapers regularly identify possible conflicts of interest to their readers, after all.

This was the response I got from Philadelphia Media Network:

“Brian Tierney is the current chairman of the Poynter Foundation and former publisher of the Inquirer and Daily News, so the commentary he shared on Sunday was deemed insightful and credible.  We encourage and welcome input on all subjects of community interest, including journalism.”

A spokesman for the company declined to clarify whether that meant Tierney is or is not connected to the company.

A couple of days later, I got this response from Tierney, emailed through a spokesman:

 The newspaper industry – and the journalism it fosters – remains one of the things that makes our democracy so great. As I outlined in the op-ed, I think the power of traditional media like newspapers has only increased with the power of social media. They work hand-in-hand to create even greater education, engagement and results.

Which, of course, leaves us in the dark about the underlying question.

Tierney, I gather, is chairman of The Poynter Foundation, and in that role has apparently been a great cheerleader for journalism and the type of journalism support and education that Poynter does. And that’s fantastic.

Still, it feels a bit weird to see a journalism award go to a man who, when offered a chance at transparency and clarity, instead chooses to muddy the waters. And it’s beyond odd when the announcement of that award is so ostentatious in its avoidance of the part of Tierney’s legacy that will always be the first thing that people remember: He took the papers into bankruptcy. That’s not something that can be undone with a well-phrased press release or a fancy award, no matter how much it might be deserved. 

But: Tierney is and always has been a fantastic PR man. If he’s put those skills to work in the service of saving newspapers, great. It’s just too bad his big journalism award feels drenched less in journalism’s values and more in public relations.

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