All big-city newspapers have been hurt by the rise of the Internet, declining ad sales, and an economy gone south. But the brain trust at the Inquirer and Daily News has a deeper problem: They think we still need their papers to find out what’s going on
BY STEVE VOLK
IN THE HEADY early days after Brian Tierney’s ownership group purchased the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Daily News in 2006, one of his new employees saw him walking up Broad Street toward the paper’s headquarters. Tierney wore a mobster-loud pin-striped suit and chomped on a cigar so thick his mouth barely encompassed its girth. A cigar is, of course, never just a cigar. It’s a symbol of success or pretension to it, of a new baby born or a World Series won. Tierney appeared to have earned his cigar. In becoming the co-owner, publisher and CEO of this city’s newspapers, he had won a competitive bidding war and acquired more than just a business. Much more. “It’s legacy-building time,” he told reporters, thus conjoining the fate of the papers and his own life’s work.
Tierney offered himself up as The Man Who Would Save Philadelphia’s Newspapers at a tumultuous time. In the years just before he purchased the Inquirer and Daily News, frequent cost-cutting had become the industry norm. Employees, mostly reporters, were shed like unwanted fat. Revenue was in free fall. Philadelphia’s papers earned the Knight-Ridder chain a $100 million profit in 2004 but only $76 million in 2005, and were on course for just $50 million when Tierney purchased them the next year. But Tierney is a former advertising and public relations executive, and words like “decline” and “fall” aren’t part of his vocabulary. And so the savior walked into the Inquirer building speaking not of retrenchment, but of expansion. He said local ownership would provide an antidote to the toxic requirements of Wall Street, which demanded ever-increasing profits. And when he first took to a podium in the Inquirer building, he made a particularly grand promise: “The Next Great Era in Philadelphia Journalism,” he said, “begins today.” Legacy time.
Now, less than three years later, it’s all gone to hell. Circulation has fallen. In early 2008, Tierney warned union representatives of “a dire situation” if costs weren’t cut by 10 percent. The papers have slashed more than 400 staff members across all departments since he took over. According to Newspaper Guild representative Bill Ross, Tierney once shook up a management meeting by barking “I will not lose my fucking house over this!” And Ross says a couple of people emerged from a private meeting with the CEO claiming that he’d spoken to them, in his 12th-floor office, with a baseball bat in his hands. Ross also adds that in January, Tierney took to patrolling the parking garage, watching to see what time employees were arriving to work and asking managers about those who were late. “That’s what I’m getting calls about now,” says Ross. “He’s walking around the parking garage. If he gets hit by a car, it’ll be his own fault.” Tierney’s ownership group, Philadelphia Media Holdings, stopped making interest payments to its creditors over the summer. Thirty-five further editorial layoffs were announced in December. No one knows what tomorrow will bring — except that some tomorrow could mark the end of Philadelphia’s newspapers.
Photo-illustration by C.J. Burton from the February 2009 issue of Philadelphia magazine.