Press for Success

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

Guzzo understands full well just how good he's got it at the Post. At a time when American newspapers are cutting back more drastically than they have in decades, Singleton is sticking by his pledge to add one hundred people to the Post editorial staff over the next few years. (Twelve new positions have been budgeted for the current fiscal year, with the "ramp-up" set to be accelerated if and when the economy improves.) "There's no other publisher I know of who is talking about the sort of ambitious plans Dean is talking about for the Post," Guzzo says. "And the sorts of additions he's talking about are not what you'd associate with someone who's concerned first and exclusively with the bottom line. That tells me that he's genuinely dedicated to having a paper that's very well regarded throughout the journalistic community."

Even Richard Scudder doesn't think the Post has reached this level yet, Pulitzer or no Pulitzer: Singleton confesses that his partner of eighteen years sometimes derides the paper as "dull." (When asked for confirmation, Scudder merely laughs.) But are other MediaNews properties financing these aspirations? Sean Holstege, a regional transportation reporter for the Oakland Tribune, and an ANG union rep, can't help but wonder. Holstege says he understands that the Post is Singleton's top priority, and he doesn't begrudge him that: "It's his money, and he should be able to allocate his resources how he sees fit." But he thinks "it's got to be equitable and reasonable."

Based on the Northern California guild's analysis of MediaNews's financial report, Holstege says, ANG contributes 9 percent of the company's circulation but 18 percent of its revenues, while the Post counts for 29 percent of the circulation but 23 percent of revenues. "We're the cash cow, and they're the Pulitzer cow. And that can be frustrating, because we feel we have the talent here to write Pulitzer Prize-winning stories all day and all night if we had the resources to do it right, but we don't. We've got people who have to live in single-occupancy hotels, because they aren't paid enough to live anywhere better."

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.

Disparities do exist, Singleton says: "We've got some newspapers that do extremely well and do a lot of good stuff, and we've got newspapers that are marginally profitable and can't do as much. The bottom line dictates how much you can do." And because the JOA, among other things, has boosted the Post, the sky's the limit in Denver.

"I think we do a solid job in local news coverage, a solid job in sports, a solid job in business," says Singleton. "Our business section could be better, our local news coverage could be better. But I'm not just looking to do an even better job covering city hall or suburban beats. I want to do the things that great newspapers do. I want another five people in the Washington bureau, so that we can cover our Washington delegation a lot better than we do. And I want us to do those extra stories that a good newspaper would never have done, but a great newspaper does all the time. I want us to do really important stories that you really need to know, even if you didn't know that you needed to know them before you read them.

"I don't want to put out a great newspaper so people will say, 'He put out a great newspaper,'" he continues. "I want to put out a great newspaper because great newspapers do great things."

The decline in the number of stories about Singleton the penny-pinching, tight-assed newspaper vulture has everything to do with MediaNews's improving fortunes. In the old days, Singleton says, he could only afford papers that needed major surgery, but now he can pick up properties that are in considerably better shape.

Still, he doesn't shy away from scraps. Most potential buyers kept their distance when the Salt Lake Tribune came on the market, knowing that the paper was involved in an extremely messy JOA with the cross-town Deseret News, which is owned by the Mormon Church. But MediaNews jumped into the fray anyhow, buying it last year. Since then, there have been a flurry of court actions involving the management team at the Tribune, which claims to hold an option to buy the paper next July, and the honchos at Deseret, who accuse Tribune managers of preventing them from switching to a morning publishing schedule. Deseret publisher Jim Wall, who previously worked for Singleton at several MediaNews papers, most recently the Denver Post, also holds that his team has the right to approve or disapprove its future JOA partner, "and I think we have a good one in Dean Singleton. I was with him for nearly ten years, and we didn't always agree on how to run a ship. But his integrity was never questioned, and that makes all the difference."

Wall's counterpart at the Tribune, Dominic Welch, who's publisher of the paper and head of the agency that handles business matters for the Tribune and the Deseret News, didn't return Westword's calls for comment. But in previous interviews, Welch has all but accused Singleton of being a Mormon spy -- a charge that causes Singleton to snicker, lawsuits or no lawsuits. "We think Salt Lake's a great market, and we want to be there for a long, long time," he says. "And we think we'll be able to do that. But if a court tells us we need to sell it down the road, the worst that will happen is that we'll sell it for a very large profit, because with all the problems we bought it very low. So everything will work out fine."

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