In a bold stroke that will be watched closely by the ailing industry to see if he can lead advertisers to rethink how they use newspapers, Brian P. Tierney, best known for running one of Philadelphia's leading public-relations and ad agencies, is in the market for a chief creative officer for his newly purchased Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News. The job -- believed to be the first such position in the newspaper industry -- is to lead a comprehensive redesign of the papers and work with marketers to create new ad-friendly formats at two former Knight Ridder papers that have long lagged behind equally challenged peers.
Strawberry Frog or Modernista
"I don't want someone from the Tampa Tribune for this; I want somebody from Strawberry Frog or Modernista [or some other creative agency]," said Mr. Tierney, who expects to fill the post later this summer. "This is going to be somebody who puts a design ethic through everything we put out ... and also works closely with agencies."
His play is likely to raise eyebrows in an industry with a long and treasured tradition of "church and state" in which editorial folks worry about editorial and a paper's layout, and the ad side figures out how to work around that. But with leaders such as The New York Times introducing ad units that would have been verboten 20 years ago -- such as watermarks under stock tables and front-page ads on news sections -- it's obvious certain traditions have been swept aside.
"It's a very smart, very strategic idea," said Mary Meder, president, Harmelin Media, a media shop in the Philadelphia suburb of Bala Cynwyd, Pa. "The paper needs to be redesigned in a way that's appropriate with how people actually read today. Newspapers need to find new ways to reach advertisers' consumers, and this sounds like an attempt to do that."
Worries that the new owners might be tone deaf to editorial concerns surfaced promptly after Mr. Tierney -- who often clashed with the papers he now runs on behalf of the Catholic Church, a client, and was active in the state Republican Party -- and his partners announced their $562 million acquisition of the papers in late May. This new position won't ease those minds.
"It is very tricky [to have an executive involved with editorial and advertising], and it raises some concerns," said Sam McKeel, retired former publisher of both Philly papers, as well as the Chicago Sun-Times. "But I'd remind all of us involved in print media that we're falling behind other media, and that's why we need to be more creative."
Mr. McKeel, who served as an adviser to Mr. Tierney's bid, said he is "absolutely convinced" that Mr. Tierney and his fellow investors are committed to publishing "good newspapers with a lot of integrity." In fact, at a June 29 press conference to announce the sale had closed, Mr. Tierney and his partners signed noninterference pledges.
Turning around the Philly papers -- which had been arguably the worst performers in the struggling Knight Ridder chain -- won't be easy. Though their ad revenue is not broken out separately, during 2005, the papers had the chain's largest percentage decreases in the retail (-4.1%), national (-12.4%) and auto (-14.7%) ad categories, according to a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. And their 5.4% decline in circulation revenue was also the largest in the chain last year.
John Lavine, dean of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, noted that there's nothing inherently evil-or even new-about newspapers trying to improve their marketing.
"The increase of a marketing orientation at a newspaper is not the same thing as advertising intruding on journalism," said Mr. Lavine, who added that he thought the chief creative officer's function of working with advertisers to develop new shapes and formats was "especially exciting." He added: "It is a newspaper connecting with its audience, and that is something they should absolutely be doing."
Ad budget boost
Another steps Mr. Tierney is taking to improve the newspapers' performance is to increase their annual ad budget to $5 million from the low six-figures. A promotional campaign will include media, sports and event sponsorships; truck wraps; and branded handouts. He will also offer a 50% discount to new subscribers.
"We didn't buy this to manage the decline," he said. "We did it to put together a platform for growth."