Former Ad Man and PR Maven Now True Believer in Newspapers

Tierney: Local Papers 'Leaving a Lot of Money on the Table'

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WASHINGTON (AdAge.com) -- Maybe it's bravado, maybe it's the challenge or maybe it's the belief that newspapers' prospects -- specifically those in Philadelphia -- have been badly estimated, but Brian P. Tierney, the former public relations exec turned advertising agency exec turned investor, sees a money-making opportunity in a long-derided sector.
Brian Tierney
Brian Tierney Credit: AP

Outsider's perspective
Mr. Tierney led investment group Philadelphia Media Holdings that this week purchased for $562 million Philadelphia's two major daily newspapers. But he is best known for founding Tierney Communications and turning it into Philadelphia's most prominent ad agency before selling it off to Interpublic Group of Cos. He became a GOP pundit on a local talk show and an investor in companies such as NutriSystem. He predicts that the same outsider perspective that helped him in advertising can revitalize revenue and circulation at the Philadelphia Inquirer and The Daily News as well as their joint Web site, Philly.com.

"In this market, where we built the largest ad agency since N.W. Ayer left town, I learned you can't buy around the newspapers," he said. "I always thought that they were leaving a lot of money on the table.

"We want to build out these brands to spread our wings just like we did for NutriSystem," he said, citing that company's dramatic growth in revenues and earnings last year.

Mr. Tierney said Wall Street analysts too often dismiss newspapers because of their aging readership and don't consider the possibilities for capitalizing on dailies and the authority they bring along.

Great business with older audience
"You can have a great business with [readers] over 25 or 30," Mr. Tierney said, adding there are plenty of opportunities to reach out to a younger population as well.

"I have two children, 20 and 23, and they read an awful lot," he said. "What the print publication has to do is to reach out and connect at a different level with a younger audience. It's not 'You are wrong' and 'We are right.' We have Web sites and print publications and the issue is relevancy."

Mr. Tierney likened his new venture to when he was building his agency during the 1990s. His challenge wasn't coming up with some new ad campaigns -- it was rethinking and developing new platforms. "I looked at it a lot differently from a lot of other people because I came out of a different environment," he said, noting his lack of advertising background at the time.

Newspapers can have a bright future if they are willing to let in fresh thinking. "I think a lot of industries like newspapers somehow see declines as an inevitable thing. I think that is crazy. I reject that and have a different perspective."

Savvy business people
His new team of owners includes "savvy business people" with significant experience and perspective on strategies to grow the brands, Mr. Tierney said. "With people like [NutriSystem Chairman-CEO] Michael Hagan, who started Verticalnet, we have smart people who aren't normally involved in newspapers. We won't cure cancer and we don't expect all others to fall over," but he believes they can turn the properties around.

One of the first signs of change was evident in the sale announcement, which did not use either the old Philadelphia Newspapers logo or the new Philadelphia Media Holding logo, but went out under the banner of the three brands -- The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Philadelphia Daily News and Philly.com. The company will launch the first extensive marketing campaign for the papers in several years, Mr. Hagan said.

Private ownership of the papers -- the dailies had been owned by Knight-Ridder, then briefly by McClatchy Co. -- will allow the kind of investments needed without worrying about meeting short-term profit goals, Mr. Hagan said.

"What we bring is -- instead of looking to each quarter's earnings -- we can build these businesses for what is best. Corporate ownership is great in certain times, but when industry is going to transition, private ownership offers advantages."

Backing out of politics
Mr. Tierney worked for Republican committees in Washington and has occasionally appeared in Philadelphia on a local political talk program to give GOP views. He also was an adviser to a GOP mayoral candidate and appeared in a documentary on that race, according to the Daily News. One of the investors in the purchase is Bruce E. Toll, a founder of the Toll Brothers, a homebuilders firm.

Mr. Tierney told Philadelphia newspapers he will withdraw from active GOP politics and he dismisses concerns about attempts to exert political influence in the papers, noting that the investors, which include a union pension fund, come from various political backgrounds and probably couldn't agree on any one philosophy.

"You would have to be a fool to invest this much money and then diminish editorial integrity," he said. He said the investors have differing views and agendas and all agreed that no member should attempt to influence the editorial direction of the publications.
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