Press for Success

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

Singleton also demonstrated plenty of common sense in the way he set about returning the Post to profitability. He moved the editorial department away from regional enterprise pieces, in which the previous regime had specialized, in favor of a renewed emphasis on metro Denver. He converted the Post to direct billing years before the Rocky did so, which cut back dramatically on expenses associated with "float," the industry term used to describe papers distributed to people whose subscriptions have lapsed or whose bills haven't been paid. And he focused closely on myriad details Times Mirror had overlooked, no matter how seemingly insignificant.

"We bought the paper five years after it moved from afternoons to mornings, and all the newspaper racks were on the wrong side of the street for the bus routes," Singleton says. "The Rocky, which had been the morning paper for a long time, was on the bus stops coming in, and the Post was on the bus stops going out, where nobody waiting for a bus in the morning could get them without crossing the street."

But if Singleton worked miracles in Denver, he failed to conjure magic in Dallas. He wound up peddling the Times Herald for $110 million in 1988, just two years after buying it for the same amount, to a group led by John Buzzetta, a longtime associate who had been the Herald's publisher; he says he did so mainly to offset the cost of the Denver and Houston purchases. Three years later, following a desperate effort to keep it afloat, Buzzetta sold the assets of the paper to A.H. Belo Corp., owner of the Morning News, which promptly shut it down -- a demise for which Singleton accepts no blame. "When I sold Dallas, there was no reason for it to disappear," he says. "It positioned itself pretty well as the blue-collar alternative in Dallas, although a lot of categories in advertising revenues and demographic categories benefited the News. I think what happened is they took on way too much debt. They had good, positive cash flow, but they didn't have enough to cover the debt."

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.

What Singleton fails to mention is that much of the debt was owed to him. But Buzzetta, who now owns Van Zandt Newspapers, a small chain in Texas, doesn't point fingers at MediaNews. "The debt was part of it, but only up to a point," he says. "We were also fighting the trend against second newspapers in two-newspaper towns and a recession that lasted a long, long time. The recession lasted so long that even without the debt, the paper would have been in trouble."

Perhaps, but these extenuating circumstances don't prevent many onetime Times Herald staffers from looking back on Singleton's tenure with an anger that seems undimmed by the passing years. "I don't think Dean ever gave a shit about whether the journalism was good or bad," says David Pasztor, a Times Herald veteran who's now executive associate editor with New Times, owner of Westword. "All he cared about was money."

Pasztor joined the Times Herald in 1982, and although he acknowledges that Times Mirror didn't operate a very tight ship, he feels the quality of the news product was high: "In the year before Dean bought it, we had four Pulitzer finalists. Needless to say, that never happened again." One of Singleton's first moves was to install as editor David Burgin, among the most controversial journalists in the country. Pasztor calls Burgin "a very explosive, often mean-tempered, occasionally charming guy who's not particularly well-rounded as an editor -- which was a pretty good indication of how things would go under Dean. It was all style over substance."

Singleton didn't order layoffs following his purchase, Pasztor says, but "the staff was cut anyway, by departures. You had a huge wave of editorial employees who left the paper in the year after Dean bought it, to the point where we'd put lists of people who quit on the terminals so we could track where they went. And the reason a lot of them left was because they knew Dean didn't give a shit if the paper folded so long as he got his money out of it. He just didn't care."

The situation was somewhat different in Houston. Singleton held onto the Houston Post until the bitter end, eventually selling it in 1995 for $120 million to the happy men and women of the Hearst Corp., owner of the Houston Chronicle, who immediately shuttered it. Yet Singleton says he knew after only a couple of years that the Houston paper wouldn't fly. "Houston was a white-collar paper in a blue-collar market," he says. "We had the upper-end demos, but we could never make any Sunday gains. We fought that battle for seven years, but never could win it, and I finally came to the conclusion that in Houston we'd be strictly number two forever, and Denver could be number one. So I sold Houston to Hearst and decided to concentrate on Denver."

Considering that the Houston Post had been in existence since 1880, this assessment seems awfully sentiment free. But Singleton swears he did everything he could to sell the paper to an outfit that would keep it alive, including suggesting a joint operating agreement, which Hearst snubbed, and making presentations to 45 different companies. After the sale, Singleton told the press there hadn't been any viable offers, but he now confirms rumors that A.H. Belo, buyer of the Times Herald, had stepped up to the plate with a $70 million proposition; after a letter of intent was signed, he says, Belo's board turned thumbs down. Singleton doesn't consider his earlier comments misleading, because the Belo proposal was withdrawn -- but he insists he would have accepted it even though the Hearst bid was already on the table. "At $70 million, we would have lost money, and at $120 million we made money; we paid $100 million for it. But that would have been the proudest $50 million I would ever have lost."

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