Press for Success

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

"I want the Post to be a great newspaper, and the Post today is a good newspaper, not a great newspaper," he says. "I wanted to spend the money to make it a great newspaper, but I knew that I could never spend enough to make it great while the newspaper war was going on. And I didn't want my kids to make it a great newspaper. I want to make it a great newspaper.

"I'm going to be fifty, and I do have some health issues," he adds, referring to the multiple sclerosis with which he's dealt for many years; he says the ailment only slows him down about one day per month. "But I expect to live a long time, and I wanted to get on with my life. And the JOA allowed me to get on with the business of making the Post a great newspaper."

Such pronouncements couldn't be further removed from the image of Singleton painted by his many detractors, who charge him with a wide variety of sins, including favoring cut-rate journalism. In their view, Singleton is largely culpable for the ugly deaths of two major metropolitan dailies he once owned -- the Dallas Times Herald and the Houston Post -- and the decline in quality at many others in his portfolio. He's only concerned with the bottom line, they say, and doesn't care about the jobs he's eliminated, the salaries he's reduced, the benefits he's sliced or the lives he's affected for the worse. And they offer plenty of evidence to back up these claims.

Former Denver Post executive editor Neil Westergaard has plenty of Singleton stories to share.
John Johnston
Former Denver Post executive editor Neil Westergaard has plenty of Singleton stories to share.
Richard Scudder is Singleton's MediaNews Group partner.
Richard Scudder is Singleton's MediaNews Group partner.

How, then, to reconcile these two Singletons -- the one who speaks about journalism with the passion and enthusiasm of someone eager to leave a legacy of excellence for future generations, and the one who's become richer than Croesus by turning failing newspapers into profit rockets using the most cold-eyed of methods? Is he sincere about making the Post, whose Pulitzer Prize win for coverage of the Columbine shootings fills him with pride, into a media institution on par with the New York Times and the Boston Globe, as he says is his goal? If so, will he finance this mission by permanently relegating the rest of his papers to mediocrity and sentencing employees outside Denver to an eternity of crummy wages, sub-par working conditions and zero job security?

The answers to these questions won't come from Singleton, who's uncommonly accessible for a person in his position; last week he spent an hour on live TV being quizzed by talk-show host Peter Boyles. He holds saints in high regard, but he's never claimed to be one, and as he enters his sixth decade, he seems secure with himself and certain about where he wants to go from here -- critics be damned.

"Newspapers are not a growth business," he says. "If all I was interested in was a return in capital, I'd sell the company and put my money somewhere else. But that's not why we're here. We're here because we want to be here, and we do what we do because we want to do it. It has nothing to do with dollars and cents except that dollars and cents keep the engine running -- and you've got to keep the engine running. I've told our folks many times: You can go down with the ship, but you still went down."

Whether it's because of his success (Media-News generated revenue last year of more than $1 billion) or due to the behavior of his rivals (the Knight-Ridder chain, for instance, is drastically cutting back at its papers, pri- marily because its profits aren't as high as they once were), Singleton is experiencing a reputation upgrade. Last year, the business magazine Forbes referred to him as "the notorious bad boy of cheapskate publishing" -- a fairly standard description. But in April, Editor & Publisher, a widely read journalism trade magazine, named him publisher of the year in a respectful, even laudatory article whose subhead declared, "Love him or hate him, MediaNews CEO Dean Singleton is proof that cutthroat evolution is alive and well in the newspaper business."

On E&P's cover, Singleton stands on a hay-sprinkled patch of range land with one arm around a cow, looking uncomfortable as all get-out in Western duds that seem fresh off the rack; the jeans are marked by creases as sharp as stilettos. But even though he appears to be a drugstore cowboy in the shot, he was actually reared on a Texas ranch thirty miles from the modest community of Graham, located near the Oklahoma border between Fort Worth and Wichita Falls.

One of five children (an older brother was killed in a car crash at 21), Singleton is portrayed by his sister, Pat Robinson, who's been his personal assistant for fifteen years, as a precocious type who from early on was searching for ways to make a buck. Ten years his senior, Robinson recalls that when Singleton was ten or eleven, he co-signed a bank loan with his father to buy a pig to raise and show in a 4-H contest. It turned out to be a good investment. "You always made a profit on something like that, because there are always people who buy them to support the kids," she says about her baby brother, who's a frequent livestock buyer at the Colorado State Fair. "Even then, he had a knowledge of that sort of thing."

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