Brian Tierney's gamble on Philadelphia news

Wannabe media tycoon Brian P. Tierney could sell ice to Eskimos and make them think they were getting a good deal. But now the owner of Philadelphia's dominant newspapers will need every bit of his considerable power of persuasions to retain the influence he has cultivated for decades in the Philadelphia region.

Tierney is a real-life Horatio Alger. Born to working class parents, he founded and sold two public relations firms (my wife works for one of them but had little day-to-day contact with Tierney; I have never met him). Tierney was an aggressive flack, gaining notoriety for a dust-up with the Philadelphia Inquirer over its coverage of the Philadelphia Catholic archdiocese. Eventually, the reporter involved in the controversy wound up suing his own editor for libel and collected a settlement. Last I heard, he owned a pizza shop.

By 2006, Tierney was restless again. After selling his second PR company, he joined Advanta Corp. Apparently a few months later he had a falling out and left the company. By then, the newspaper industry was beginning its latest death spiral. The merger saga between Knight-Ridder and McClatchy was finally over. California-based McClatchy decided that it wanted to exit the Philadelphia market, once of the crown jewels of the Knight-Ridder chain.

Christopher Harper, an associate professor of journalism at Temple University, told the Daily Finance that despite misgivings about his background, "there were a lot of high expectations when Brian Tierney took over the Philadelphia newspapers."

Through a bit of salesmanship that would have made P.T, Barnum proud, Tierney convinced the unions and a band of local investors, including the vice chairman of Toll Brothers Inc., to back his $562 million bid. The former PR man, a longtime Republican operative, pledged that he wouldn't interfere with the Inquirer, though the paper wound up printing endorsements for both Barack Obama and John McCain during the presidential election. A new day would dawn for Philadelphia journalism.

Only it was not to be.

"Five months after buying the publications, Tierney cited weak advertising revenue when eliminating 68 jobs, or 17 percent of the Inquirer's editorial staff," Bloomberg News said. "In January 2008, Tierney told employees costs had to be reduced by 10 percent to avoid `a dire situation.' Union trustees sued the company in April, claiming the publisher sought to gain control of a union pension fund covering more than 2,000 current and former employees."

Tierney and his partners had no idea what they were doing. Their gimmicks such as Suduku contests and hiring local mystery writer Lisa Scottoline as a columnist have not done much to prevent a massive bleeding of readers and advertisers.

The Inquirer (where I have done freelance writing) is a shell of its former self before Tierney took it over. The newsroom is cavernous, filled with empty desks. Rows of Pulitzer Prizes are a testament to the place it used to be. Former staff members recently held a party to talk about the good old days. How sad.

Now, Philadelphia Newspapers, the corporate parent of the Inquirer and its sister publication the Philadelphia Daily News, is seeking protection from its creditors. Tierney told The New York Times that the paper would renegotiate its debt with its creditors. The company has been out of compliance with its debt covenants since last year.

Temple's Harper is optimistic that the Inquirer and Daily News will emerge from bankruptcy. Further staff cuts would be unwise considering the papers are at bare bones levels now.

"I don't think the Inquirer is going to die," he said. "I fear more for the New York Times than I do for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
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