Blood Feud

The Post's Dean Singleton joins a newspaper marriage even more strained than Denver's.

The Tribune reacted with enough righteous indignation to impress even Joe Lieberman. Tribune editor James E. Shelledy wrote a front-page editorial on December 3 hinting at dark conspiracies involving, among others, Mormon-friendly Senator Orrin Hatch, and implied that MediaNews's Singleton, identified as "until last year a member of Brigham Young University's Communications school board," was acting as a de facto front for the LDS church. Singleton, who identifies his faith as Baptist, memorably responded to this charge in the New York Times: "I don't think anybody has ever accused me of being a Mormon," he said. In addition, the Tribune ran an editorial cartoon in which MediaNews and AT&T were characterized as pinstripe-wearing gangsters shielding a cowering Deseret News, and Tribune was depicted as a cocky young newsboy rolling up his sleeves and asking, "Who's first?" Deseret swung back with an editorial of its own, headlined "Tribune Sale -- The Truth," stating that, "in fact, it is the voice of the Deseret News that has been under threat by the actions of the Tribune's management company" because the Tribune was trying to prevent it from moving to mornings.

Such posturing isn't restricted to the pages of the two papers. Deseret publisher Wall, who speaks about Singleton with as much personal warmth as he can muster, accuses the Tribune of "totally misrepresenting the pending sale." The Tribune's Frisch responds in kind: "The Tribune is a family heirloom that is being stolen," he says, adding, "That fuels a lot of rage." AT&T spokesman Steve Lang is considerably more circumspect: Aside from noting that his company views the Tribune as a "non-strategic asset," he declines further comment.

Thus far, Singleton has gotten little out of the Tribune but humiliation: When he arrived at the Tribune offices following the sale announcement, he was originally told that he couldn't speak with any employees at all, and even after a smallish meeting was arranged, he was hardly greeted like a conquering hero. But his expressions of astonishment over the entire muddle, symbolized by a December 5 piece in the Rocky Mountain News headlined "Utah Paper Controversy Shocks Post Owner," seem more than a little overstated. Indeed, Jody Lodovic, executive vice president and chief financial officer for MediaNews, concedes that "nothing that's happened so far has been a terrible surprise. We knew there was bad blood there; we had no direct knowledge of it, but it's been a very well-publicized situation there for a long time, and obviously there are a lot of emotions involved." Yet Lodovic emphasizes that problems like these have never scared off MediaNews, a company renowned for its willingness to pick the bones of newspaper carcasses: "We've done tough deals before, like buying the Oakland Tribune, which was basically a failing business about to go into bankruptcy. But you have to look at things long-term. There are some bumps, but those kinds of situations are where some of the best opportunities are."

Fred Harper

Papers in joint operating agreements often fit that description, and if MediaNews gets its hooks into the Tribune, Salt Lake City will become the fourth burg in which the company is governed by a JOA, assuming that Denver falls into place: Charleston, West Virginia, and York, Pennsylvania, are the others. Lodovic doesn't see any reason to believe that the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post could someday wind up in a Tribune-like mire, and because there is no religious component to any dispute here, perhaps he's got an argument. But neither does he think the circumstances in Utah are all that untenable. "We're very comfortable in a JOA environment," he says, "and I don't think it makes things in Salt Lake any more complicated."

The Tribune's Frisch feels otherwise. "JOAs are very complex animals," he notes, "and they exact a toll on the employees of the agency that runs them when the two partners don't get along. It's been really difficult for them, because they get stories from both sides and they don't know who to believe -- but then they have to go out and sell advertising for both papers. It's a tough thing."

And getting tougher.

So long: Until recently, visitors to Colorado Public Radio's Web site, cpr.org, could find a question-and-answer document about its acquisition of a station at 1340 AM and its intention to turn the signal into a 24-hour classical outlet. Apparently these explanations failed to calm lovers of KVOD, the city's longtime commercial-classical voice, which is on the cusp of being silenced.

KVOD program director Jim Conder sent an e-mail to listeners last week revealing that the purchase of the outlet by Latino Communications' Zee Ferrufino, who intends to install a Spanish-language format, has been approved by the Federal Communications Commission, thereby hastening KVOD's demise. After noting that CPR's new acquisition, which it hopes to rechristen KVOD, "will carry neither the Metropolitan Opera nor Karl Haas's Adventures in Good Music" -- two station staples -- "nor have they contacted any of the current KVOD staff about possible employment opportunities," Conder also pointed out that the broadcaster's annual celebration of Beethoven's birthday was being canceled because of a lack of a promotional budget. Moreover, he revealed that the station itself would only be staffed until 7 p.m. Friday, December 15, "at which time we will all say goodbye and turn on the Beethoven Satellite Network (from Chicago -- very good, too), and that will stay on until Latino Communications decides to begin their new programming."

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