Press for Success

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

Long before that, however, Singleton lost the support of many editorial employees at the Houston Post, not the least of whom was John Mecklin, a reporter at the paper from 1984 until 1992 who's now the editor of the San Francisco Weekly, a sister paper of Westword. He says Singleton reduced newsroom costs by "running off anybody who cost more than a reporter right out of college, which totally destroyed the institutional memory of the place. And there was a hell of a lot of bleeding over of the business side into editorial, with things like a front-page story about the 25th anniversary of a grocery-store chain, which might have been a blurb in the business section, but just wasn't news. That was a regular thing: Anything that was hard-hitting, especially if it involved local business or politicians who were supported by local business, just got eviscerated, squished. There was no point even bothering.

"I know of no real journalist who likes Dean Singleton," he says. "It's just my opinion, but I think he's slime."

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.

This sort of vitriol is practically nonexistent in Denver. Singleton is generally well-liked at the Post, and you don't have to dig too deeply to find a story about his compassion and humanity. Peter Chronis, a veteran reporter at the paper, eagerly tells how solicitous Singleton was after Chronis's adult son, David, was severely injured in an automobile accident. When Singleton found out that David was being treated at Swedish Medical Center, where the MediaNews head is on the board of directors, he made calls to ensure that the best possible care was being given and checked in regularly for updates on David's condition. (David is still undergoing physical therapy but is much improved.) "Dean really stepped up to the plate," Peter says. "I just think he's a fantastic person."

Post union reps aren't quite so effusive, but most appreciate that Singleton has consistently played straight with them -- even during the late '80s, when the paper's belt was cinched tight as a tourniquet. Early on, unions agreed to roll back a salary increase won in the waning days of the Times Mirror regime, and they sat still for a wage freeze, because, Singleton believes, "we let them look at the books to show them that we were telling the truth about our situation. When you ask for help from labor unions, they'll help, but they want to see the books to understand what you're asking them to do. Most major companies won't do that, but we did."

More recently, following the passage of the joint operating agreement, the Denver Newspaper Agency, the entity created to handle the business arms of the Post and the Rocky, negotiated new union contracts with remarkably little muss and fuss, and accords with the editorial departments at the two papers were reached just as smoothly. But Linda Foley, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Newspaper Guild, a division of the Communication Workers of America, warns against assuming based on these talks that Singleton is equally magnanimous in other markets. "In Denver, things worked out in everybody's interests," she says. "But you have to remember that he needed the unions' support to make sure the JOA was approved. He needed something we could give him -- but that's not always true."

A case in point is the Long Beach Press-Telegram, whose assets Singleton purchased from Knight-Ridder -- an approach that allowed him to throw out the paper's 57-year-old union pact and start over. Over a hundred jobs were lost after printing and other Press-Telegram functions were moved to facilities at nearby Singleton-owned papers -- another example of the economies offered by the clustering approach. "They're very bottom-line oriented," says Bruce Meachum, a sector representative of the Newspaper Guild who was involved in negotiations in Southern California. "And in Long Beach, they slashed and burned."

Editorial employees, meanwhile, had to jump through hoops to stick around. "Everyone had to reinterview for their jobs," says Gary North, immediate past president of the Southern California Media Guild, which recently merged into a Communication Workers of America local. "It was this weird, bizarre process where people were given about five seconds to either accept a severe cut in pay or be jobless. And there were cuts in benefits, too, like getting rid of sick pay. That December, the flu ran through the newsroom, but because there was no sick pay, everybody came in, anyhow, and infected the whole newsroom."

The union didn't crack under this strain; instead, it brought complaints against Media-News before the National Labor Relations Board, which eventually found the company had committed six violations. These breaches were resolved last year around the same time that workers at the Press-Telegram finally agreed to a contract with MediaNews. "It's not a very good contract," says North. "It doesn't restore the incomes and benefits that they'd had under Knight-Ridder, and a lot of people have left because of that. But at least it's a starting point, and hopefully we can do better next time."

Union members at Singleton's Northern California cluster, collectively known as the Alameda Newspaper Group (ANG), are already at this point. In 1998, they ratified an agreement that Erin Poh, the local representative of the Northern California Media Workers Guild, describes as inadequate in nearly every respect. "There's a base minimum of $500 a week, and with the cost of living the way it is in the Bay Area, that's barely a living wage," Poh allows. "We have adults who have to live with roommates to make ends meet -- and there's no way to sustain a family on the wages ANG is paying overall."

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