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With Buffett out of the picture, Singleton teamed instead with Richard Scudder, a member of a venerable New Jersey newspaper family whom he had met in 1977 while overseeing the Paterson News for Allbritton and while Scudder headed Garden State Paper Co., a newsprint provider. "My people told me Mr. Singleton's paper owed them a stack of money, and they couldn't get it -- so could I see what I could do?" says Scudder, Singleton's fifty-fifty partner in MediaNews and still an active participant in day-to-day operations despite being in his late eighties. "I went over there, and Dean said, 'If you won't give me newsprint, do you want the paper?' Well, I didn't want that, so we agreed that we would continue to ship paper to Dean at more than the going price per ton, and Dean never missed one payment."
In 1983, with Scudder behind him, Singleton bought the Gloucester County Times, followed in short order by two more papers in the vicinity, thereby forming what's known in newspaper circles as a cluster. This technique is Singleton's claim to fame in the industry: If he didn't invent the concept, he certainly perfected it. The idea is, as Scudder says, "eminently logical," allowing a cluster's owner to combine many costly aspects of newspapering, including printing, composing, distribution and even reporting, saving money each step of the way. As an added bonus, the circulation figures of the papers can be combined and sold to advertisers at a higher rate. Today, for instance, MediaNews owns the Los Angeles Daily News and a smattering of dailies in adjacent communities throughout the L.A. region whose total circulation is nearly equal to that of the News's primary competitor, the mighty Los Angeles Times (650,000 versus 750,000). Better yet, the distribution is concentrated in the suburbs, where residents generally fit a more affluent demographic than citizens of L.A. proper, making a group buy extremely attractive even if none of Media-News's papers have the reputation or name recognition of the Times. "The suburbs are where the future is," Singleton says.
Within a few short years, Singleton and Scudder built up clusters in Northern California and Ohio, giving Singleton the financial wherewithal to consider going after a bigger fish. He got his opportunity in 1986, when Times Mirror, owner of the Los Angeles Times, looked to unload the Dallas Times Herald. "We mortgaged ourselves to buy it," Singleton concedes, but that didn't stop him from also inquiring about the availability of the Denver Post, which Times Mirror had bought in 1980. "They said, 'We'll never sell the Denver Post,'" Singleton recalls. "They said, 'We can win in Denver, and we can't win in Dallas; it's destined to be number two forever.' So I said, 'Okay, but can you put in the agreement that if you ever sell Denver, you'll sell it to us?' And they said, 'Oh sure, that's easy.'"
Six months after taking over the Times Herald, Singleton says he realized that the Times Mirror execs had been correct about Dallas: "I realized we could never win, and that holding on as the number-two paper in a changing economy wouldn't be easy." But these factors didn't hold him back when the Houston Post was placed on the block by the corporate owner of the Toronto Sun. He immediately began negotiating to purchase it and was a month deep into talks when he was summoned by Bob Erburu, president of Times Mirror, who'd changed his tune about Denver.
Singleton says, "He told me, 'We've done research on the marketplace, and our entire management team agrees that we should go tabloid to compete with the News. That leaves me with three choices. I can go tabloid, I can completely change the management team for the third time in seven years, or I can sell it -- and I don't want to go tabloid, and I don't want to change management teams, so I'm going to sell it. Here are the financials, go back to your hotel room, and we can talk tomorrow.'"
Poring over the records, Singleton realized that he was faced with an intractable dilemma. "I really wanted to buy the Denver Post, and I really wanted to buy the Houston Post, but I couldn't afford to buy both of them." After pausing for effect, he says, "So I bought both of them."
In saving the Denver Post, Singleton got a big assist from Times Mirror, which wanted to get rid of the paper in the worst way -- and, from its own financial standpoint, did just that. The company sold the Post to MediaNews for $95 million, roughly the same price it had paid seven years before, but threw in new printing facilities that had cost $77 million for no extra charge. Furthermore, $70 million of the purchase price was paid for in notes, meaning that Times Mirror essentially financed Singleton's purchase. (This bit of history would repeat itself a decade later, when Times Mirror loaned MediaNews $50 million to help him buy the Los Angeles Daily News, with which it's now competing -- a bit of business acumen that leaves Singleton watchers in the industry slack-jawed with admiration.)