I was unable to attend Tierney’s Wharton Leadership Lunch at the University of Pennsylvania. Fortunately, I am a close friend with someone who did. This anonymous writer is well grounded in the disciplines of business, politics, economics, and the business of journalism.
These are his thoughts, presented without any of my commentary (previously).
Brian Tierney — CEO of Philadelphia Media Holdings, CEO and Publisher of The Philadelphia Inquirer, and CEO of The Philadelphia Daily News — visited the University of Pennsylvania today for a “Leadership Lunch” with undergraduate students. He arrived 20 minutes late, bustling and jovial, no apology. His public relations background shows; he is an optimistic, outsized media personality, all confident and energetic. He uses the pronouns “my” and “I” often, very few references to the credit due his employees or co-investors — except editor William Marimow, to whom we will return. (Perhaps, given the current state of the company, they are grateful that he takes all the credit.)
Tierney opened with a brief biography, then segued into the challenges of the Inquirer and Daily News.
“Our problem is debt,” he insisted. “Our problem is not [our ability to make] a profit. We made [a healthy] profit last year.” Only four days earlier, he was quoted as saying, “The loss of revenue that has occurred as a result of the current recession is squeezing our operating profit which is now insufficient to service our debt load.” [emphasis added] He admitted they were in a rough patch but told the audience that they just needed to “get through it.” He pointed out the drop in advertising revenue affecting the rest of the industry, including papers that did not carry much debt. He did not reconcile this contradiction with his earlier statement.
Eventually Tierney brought the conversation around to print versus online. He sees print continuing ad infinitum. In his opinion, it is impossible to monetize online content sufficiently to employ large newsrooms of investigative journalists. He rattled off some of the Inquirer’s latest big stories, then talked about how their (he used the pronoun “my”) journalists were so talented that they even posted some great reporting online in the form of videos. He never considered the possibility that expanding their content delivery to vehicles such as videos might be part of the solution to the decline of print.
When Tierney opened the session to questions from the audience, one student cited the example of The New York Times’s failed attempt to restrict content through TimesSelect and wondered aloud whether Tierney should be pursuing new strategies for philly.com. Tierney deflected the question by holding up the example of Rupert Murdoch, who decided against making all Wall Street Journal content free because “he would have been giving up $100 million.” (Again, note “he,” not “they.” Maybe all media titans consider themselves synonymous with their media outlets.) If online is to become the primary vehicle of content delivery, he conceded, it would have to revert to paid subscriptions. “Everyone wants content to be free,” he explained, “but you can’t do what we do and have content be free.” To his credit, he later said newspapers need to “let a hundred flowers bloom,” in the famous words of (oddly enough) Mao Tse-tung, referring to the need to experiment with new ideas. He never said what any of those flowers should be.
Another student whose parents live in the Philadelphia suburbs repeated her mother’s concern that the Inquirer will stop delivering print subscriptions in light of its recent bankruptcy declaration. Tierney emphatically and immediately reassured her that that “will not happen.” While answering another question ten minutes later, he said he was “praying that we make it through this” because he loves the Inquirer and does not want to see it disappear. (Is it possible that he only uses the pronoun “we” when talking about the company’s troubles?) It is not clear whether he was lying or just confused in response to the first question. He went on to express pride in the company’s efforts to cut costs without affecting content; he believes increasing efficiency is one of his greatest accomplishments over the last two years. He quoted (anonymously, of course) the head of a non-profit journalism organization who told him that, in all his travels to newspapers across the country, the Inquirer is the only one that has improved its content despite losing advertising revenues.
One student talked about recent research by an economist who showed how newspapers are biased toward the socioeconomic distribution of its audience, both in their decisions of what is newsworthy and in political slant. “Is this a conscious decision?” she wanted to know. Without hesitation, Tierney replied, “I’ve never heard of such a thing.” A bit abrupt as if insulted, he went on to say that the Inquirer has never biased its content toward its audience in the manner she described. The suggestion that newspapers do not cater to their audience caught most students off-guard. It is a strange business practice, indeed, to ignore such consumer demand, but newspapers without political slant? Tierney sensed their suspicion and quickly clarified, “Most newspapers do have some political leanings because most journalists are left of center.” He admitted that the Inquirer was slightly liberal, especially its editorial page, but said that he was proud of Marimow for “bringing it back to the center.”
In the final minutes, Tierney took the opportunity to point out that print has far more credibility than online. He claimed that no one reads most blogs and that one of their most common practices, copying articles from newspapers and commenting on those articles, was blatant plagiarism. He plans to stop this practice by meta-tagging philly.com articles and finding blogs who post their articles so as to order the articles removed from their blog. That such a practice might drive more traffic to philly.com, much like Napster and music recordings (an opportunity which no one seized until Apple came along with iTunes), never crossed his mind.
I am no expert on newspapers, so I will offer no opinion on the above events, except to say that it was truly a bizarre experience.
Tags: advertising revenue, Brian Tierney, Daily News, Journalism, newspapers, online content, Philadelphia, Philadelphia Media Holdings, PHILADELPHIA NEWSPAPERS INC, pmh, press, Rupert Murdoch, The New York Times, The New York Times Co, the Philadelphia Daily News, The Philadelphia Inquirer, the University of Pennsylvania, the Wall Street Journal, USD, Wall Street Journal