Press for Success

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

This pact, which took a whopping twelve years to reach, expires in August, but during the first month of negotiations, Poh says, MediaNews has been unwilling to budge on much of anything. "They've told us in bargaining that they consider ANG to be a training ground: People come here for six months, they get their clips and move on. And we object to that. We think it's important that people feel they can make a career at a community newspaper, and that they'll be supported professionally and ethically."

With passions at such a high level, labor strife would seem a foregone conclusion. But the Guild's Poh is trying to keep her people calm and to proceed in a positive manner. To that end, workers at the assorted ANG papers were planning at press time to throw several birthday parties, complete with cake and party hats, to celebrate Singleton hitting the fifty-year benchmark. "This is our way of reaching out to him and letting him know that we would gladly accept his largesse and the growth of his wisdom," she says. "He's got his Pulitzer Prize, he's got his JOA in Denver, and we think it's time that he remembers the rest of us."

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.

The Oakland Tribune, the largest of the ANG papers, may be the MediaNews property that most clearly divides Singleton's supporters from his opponents. The former argue that without his intervention, the publication most certainly wouldn't exist today; the latter counter that he used draconian methods, and he has since produced a paper that has little in common with the community in which it's based.

The roots of the Tribune stretch back to 1874, but its most noteworthy period began in 1915 with the arrival of publisher Joseph Russell Knowland, who transformed the paper into one of the power bases of the Republican party, not just in California but in the country at large. Knowland is credited with promoting Earl Warren into the California governor's mansion and later onto the Supreme Court, where he became an influential chief justice. But after Knowland stepped down in 1966, the Tribune's influence began to wane, in part because of the changes in Oakland.

"Oakland was the city of the Black Panther Party," says Pearl Stewart, who worked as a reporter at the Tribune from 1976 to 1980, and as the editor from late 1992 to late 1993. "But the paper remained very conservative. Black people weren't even looked upon as sources for many news stories. So there was a lot of skepticism about the paper from the black community."

The Knowland family sold the Tribune in the late '70s, and after an interim owner, it wound up in the pocket of Gannett, which turned it into a test template for USA Today. The company even published a blurb-filled morning edition known as "the Peach" (for the color of the paper on which it was printed) that it sold for 10 cents a copy. But with the success of the real USA Today, Gannett lost interest in the publication, eventually selling it to its publisher, the late Bob Maynard, who became the first African-American to own a mainstream daily in a major metropolitan area. But while Maynard, by most accounts, turned out an impressive product (the Tribune won a Pulitzer in 1989), he couldn't make a go of things financially. So in 1992, Singleton, whose ANG properties ringed Oakland, bought the Tribune in a complicated series of maneuvers that involved Gannett, Maynard and the Freedom Forum, Maynard's primary backer -- and before long, the paper's staff had been carved from more than 600 to a little over 250.

In most accounts, Singleton is accused of canning nearly 400 people at the Tribune, which annoys him to no end: "That kind of reporting is vindictive, because we explained everything very thoroughly in all our press releases." MediaNews, he says, purchased only the assets of the Tribune, so technically the previous owners pink-slipped everyone, and he then brought back the ones he required.

Singleton's opponents see this explanation as sheer semantics; he may not have personally pulled the plug on the Tribune employees, but they were sacked at his insistence, so he could get more bang out of his Northern California cluster. Which is precisely what he got. "They had a printing press, and we didn't need one, because we had three printing presses in southern Alameda County -- so we didn't need their press room," he says. "They had a mailroom, and we didn't need it, because we already had a mailroom. They had a composing room, and we didn't need it, because we already had a composing room that was 100 percent automated -- so we didn't need their composing people. We didn't need drivers, because we already had a distribution system, and we didn't need their carriers or their district managers, either. And we didn't need double coverage on sports teams we already covered or county government that we already covered. So they fired everyone, and we hired the people we needed."

These moves helped stem the flow of red ink, but there's plenty of debate about what kind of damage they did to the editorial department, which even to this day is stretched thin; reporters gripe about being assigned beats too sweeping for one person and not getting enough time to do things the right way. And that's not to mention issues revolving around race.

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