Monday, June 2, 2014

Inky Sale Not Official Yet, But Interim Publisher Making Moves

By Ralph Cipriano

It's a tough time at The Philadelphia Inquirer.

First, new co-owner Lewis Katz, who just bought the paper in a court-ordered auction last week, died tragically in a plane crash Saturday night at an airport in Massachusetts.

Then, employees came in to work this morning and discovered that Brian Tierney, the guy who crashed the newspaper in bankruptcy court five years ago, was back at large in the building.

That's the same Brian Tierney who paid himself a $350,000 bonus while his two Philly newspapers were going under. The same Brian Tierney who as the former Inquirer CEO and publisher asked the bankruptcy court to dismiss a $50 million payment due the pension fund of the Newspaper Guild of Greater Philadelphia. [The Guild subsequently collected $170,000 on the debt of $50 million, while lawyers in the bankruptcy collected some $40 million.] The same Brian Tierney who was brought back as a sales consultant last year, collected $87,500 in salary over four months, and in exchange, brought in exactly $0 in revenues.

Yep, with those sterling credentials it's hard to believe anybody would want to bring Tierney back to the city's paper of record, except for target practice. But the new surviving co-owner, 82-year-old H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, announced this morning that one of his first personnel moves was to bring Tierney back as "an advisor to me focusing on advertising."

Meanwhile, in light of Katz's death, people are beginning to wonder about the court-ordered sale of the newspaper's parent company at the overpriced sum of $88 million, and whether it will go through as scheduled on June 12.

Lenfest told the Inquirer it would. Lenfest's lawyer, Richard A. Sprague, told the Inquirer that the three partners Katz and Lenfest bought out last week, George E. Norcross III, William P. Hankowsky, and Joseph E. Buckelew, had offered to take a 30-day extension on collecting the $41.7 million they are owed, according to terms of the sale spelled out in court documents.

But is it true? A spokesman for the three selling owners curiously had no response to a request for comment on whether the three owners had actually agreed to the alleged 30-day extension.

Even though the sale hasn't formally gone through yet, at the newspaper offices at 8th and Market, Lenfest sure acts like he's taken over. The former cable TV magnate installed his name on the Inquirer masthead as interim publisher. He may be on vacation in Europe, but he's been available for media interviews. And today, Lenfest announced in an email to employees that he was not only bringing back Tierney as a consultant, but also Mark Frisby as associate publisher for operations.

Frisby, who had been seriously ill, served under Tierney and collected a $150,000 bonus while the place was going under. Lenfest also announced he was retaining George P. Loesch, a former Campbell Soup Co. official who was senior vice president of sales and marketing for Interstate General Media, the parent company that owned the Inquirer, Daily News and

Loesch had announced his resignation and was on his way out the door last week when he took the opportunity to blast newsroom management for their arrogance in an epic screed.

"If our Inquirer product was a soup, it would have been taken off the store shelves," Loesch wrote his fellow employees. "As I've said, not enough chicken in the chicken noodle soup' and our readers told us that."

But under interim publisher Lenfest, Loesch "has agreed to help as needed in the transition."

Bill Ross, executive director of the Newspaper Guild, said he was "disappointed" by Tierney's return.

When the executive board of the Guild met with Lenfest, Ross said, they "made it clear that we were not big fans of Brian Tierney. Mr. Lenfest made it clear to us that he understood. But clearly, with his decision today, it didn’t matter."

In addition to driving the newspaper into bankruptcy, Ross said, Tierney was an unpopular, heavy-handed boss.
After Tierney took over, "He fired six employees all in advertising," Ross said. The Guild took the firings to arbitration and "we prevailed in every case," Ross said. "Everyone was reinstated and made whole" with back pay and benefits.

"That was his style and we didn't appreciate it," Ross said of Tierney. "We'll be prepared for his nonsense if that's what he comes back with. Let's hope he learned a lesson."

Tierney, along with his longtime spokesman, Jay Devine, did not respond to a request for comment.

Postscript: Jim Romenesko hops on the Tierney story: