Press for Success

At fifty, William Dean Singleton has dozens of newspapers and all the money he needs. But what about respect?

For the truest of Christian believers, Good Friday is among the most sacred dates on the calendar. In America, though, very few receive time off to commemorate it. Employers who would never dream of asking people on their payrolls to toil away on Christmas typically don't think twice about requiring workers to put in eight hours on the anniversary of the day when Jesus Christ was fitted with a crown of thorns and nailed to the cross on which He died for the sins committed by each of us -- bosses included.

But that's not the way it is at MediaNews Group. William Dean Singleton, co-founder, vice chairman, CEO and driving force behind the firm, which owns the Denver Post, fifty other daily newspapers across the country and an ever-growing network of subsidiary publications and media properties, makes sure of that. He's been called a lot of nasty things over the years: miserly, greedy, inhumane. But at the same time, he remains serious about his faith.

A plaque emblazoned with the "Creed of a Christian" occupies a prominent space on his mammoth desk, located in an office atop the Denver Post building that offers as spectacular a view as any in Colorado, and Singleton says he does his best to live by its dictates. Maybe that's why on April 13, Good Friday 2001, when the noses of most U.S. employees can be found pressed hard to the nearest grindstone, MediaNews staffers are enjoying the blessing of a holiday.

Dean Singleton, in his office at the Post, is Denver's Prints Charming.
John Johnston
Dean Singleton, in his office at the Post, is Denver's Prints Charming.

The sole exception to this rule is Singleton himself. Two days earlier, American Furniture Warehouse owner Jake Jabs, among the biggest advertisers in the state, appeared at a hearing before U.S. District Judge John Kane to ask for a temporary injunction halting the joint operating agreement that had just bound together the business operations of the Post and its longtime competitor, the Rocky Mountain News. Singleton didn't give Jabs, whose photo is displayed prominently in his office, much chance for success in his quest, and he was right: Judge Kane smacked down the arguments offered by Jabs and Ryan Ross, a journalist and former Westword scribe who joined the court action, like logy houseflies.

But because Kane let the Jabs matter drag into a second day before bringing out his swatter, Singleton was forced to cancel a trip to Alaska, where he owns a couple of newspapers and a TV station. As a result, Singleton is still in Denver when Good Friday rolls around -- and while he could easily justify steering clear of company headquarters for 24 hours, he's unable to stay away.

"I don't have a hobby," explains this married father of three. "I don't play golf. I don't take long vacations. I'm just all consumed with newspapers."

And so, on this Good Friday morning, Singleton sits virtually alone in the MediaNews suite, undisturbed for hours by anything other than a Federal Express deliveryman, the fellow charged with watering the plants, a nettlesome reporter and the occasional phone call. These last interruptions aren't, for the most part, earthshaking. At one point, Post columnist Chuck Green, who after the announcement of the proposed JOA identified Singleton in print as "the Superman of the American newspaper industry" (talk about job security), rings, because he lost his W-2 form and wants to know whom he should call to get another one prior to April 15, tax day -- a laughably trivial query to be directed at a captain of finance, albeit one Singleton handles without complaint. But a few moments later, when the phone jangles again, something more noteworthy is at stake. Singleton picks up the receiver, exchanges a few brief words with the person on the other end of the line and hangs up. As he does so, he says, "I just bought another paper."

Singleton makes this comment as casually as the average person might talk about purchasing a three-pack of underwear, which says less about the acquisition in question -- the Ruidoso News, a daily based in Ruidoso, New Mexico -- than it does about his world as a whole. And a nice world it is. Although Singleton likes to present himself as a regular guy, saying, "I live well, but not extravagantly," his Cherry Hills Village home is just down the road from one belonging to heiress/philanthropist Sharon Magness, recently identified by the Rocky as Colorado's "queen." Similarly, he describes the party he's tossing this Saturday to mark his fiftieth birthday (which was on August 1) as just a little get-together with old friends. But the details put things in perspective: At first, Singleton hoped to line up the Eagles to play in his backyard, but the timing of their August 11 appearance at the new Invesco Field at Mile High made that impossible. So he's having to make do with Michael Martin Murphey, the Fifth Dimension and the Four Tops. Poor guy.

When asked if reaching the half-century mark holds any special significance for him, Singleton responds with a nonchalant "not really." But other remarks suggest the opposite is true -- especially when the topic turns to the Post, MediaNews's flagship and the publication that's obviously closest to him. Ever since the announcement of the joint operating agreement last year, Singleton has been confronted with earlier quotes he made vowing to fight the Rocky to the last drop of ink, including one in which he compared a JOA to "kissing your sister." Moreover, the Rocky's shaky financial status, which became public during the JOA process, implies that the Post might have polished off its rival in short order had a cease-fire not been called when it was. But Singleton stands behind his decision to make nice, which he says was motivated in large part by his desire to improve the Post's quality.

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