Press for Success

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

Stewart, an African-American, thinks she was hired to edit the Tribune in part to reassure members of the black community upset about Maynard's departure. But she was put under the direct supervision of ANG editor-in-chief David Burgin, the Singleton associate who made so many enemies when he was at the Dallas Times Herald. Stewart, now a journalism professor at Florida A&M, says Burgin was "in a permanent rage" during her dealings with him, which made her work extremely difficult. She adds that there was frequent conflict between her wish to reflect Oakland's diversity and higher-ups' fear that such a tack would alienate the conservative base of the paper. "There was the perception that we were losing white readers, and that somehow we'd become a black newspaper. At first, there was an effort to skirt these issues, but later I had direct conversations with the publisher, who'd complain to me about calls he was getting whenever there were photos of too many black people on the section fronts."

Stewart says tensions also arose because of editorials she felt were out of touch with the community -- on one occasion, she was told she couldn't write a column opposing a questionable construction project because the paper was supporting it -- and restrictions about covering advertisers in all but the puffiest way: "With advertising dollars so precious, we were expected not to ruffle their feathers."

Episodes like these weren't the direct cause of Stewart's resignation after a year on the job: She left because Burgin, who'd vacated his position for several months, decided to return. (Years later, Burgin split from the Tribune, leaving sexual-harassment accusations in his wake. He's presently the editor of the embattled San Francisco Examiner.) Today, Stewart says she's unsure how much Singleton had to do with the difficulties she faced, but she vividly remembers one of her handful of encounters with him. He came into her office on a day when a major international story in Somalia broke, and when she told him she planned to put it on the front page, "he rolled his eyes and said, 'Who cares about Somalia? We want local, local, local.'"

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.

After these remarks, did the Somalia story get page-one play? Stewart laughs. "What do you think?"

To Singleton, "Local's key -- key. With the world the way it is, with such quick communication and 24-hour news channels on cable, the only thing we have to sell is what we produce -- and the only thing we have that nobody else can produce is local news, local content, local sports, local information, no matter what it is."

This isn't merely a pose: Singleton believes it to his core. When he was the executive editor of the Denver Post, Denver Business Journal editor Neil Westergaard remembers getting a call from Singleton the day after the paper had given cover treatment to a photo of the White House Rose Garden handshake between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin -- as had virtually every other daily newspaper in the United States. Westergaard says, "He told me, 'We don't sell papers in Jerusalem.'"

Selling papers is indeed job one for Singleton. He once said, "If I had to choose between making 1,000 reporters happy and one banker happy, I'd choose the banker," and he defends the comment with relish. "Newspaper guys are all romanticists," he says, "and when I bought the Fort Worth Press, I was a romanticist, too -- but I didn't back it up, which is why I failed. Every dream must be backed up by a business plan that provides financial security -- and if you don't provide that stability first, your dreams are dead in the water."

But that doesn't mean Singleton wants to be thought of as a man who'll pull journalistic punches to make a buck. Westergaard shares an anecdote about being called into the office of then-publisher Ryan McKibben and being told that he had to give prominent coverage to the Foley's Thanksgiving Day Parade in Houston because of a promise Singleton had made to Foley's brass. (He says they eventually offered up a feature story from Houston, a front-page blurb about TV coverage of the parade and a day-after photo from it.) Singleton calls that "utter bullshit. Anybody in this newspaper knows where I'll come down on any question of editorial integrity. Nobody, but nobody, will interfere with our editorial independence, and there's a long line of advertisers and politicians in my career who would tell you the same thing."

So, too, does Glenn Guzzo, the Post's editor. He refers to a recent incident in which Invesco executives tried to get a Woody Paige column spiked, because an Invesco employee had off-handedly mentioned that company officials thought the new Invesco Field at Mile High stadium looked like "a diaphragm"; Singleton supported Paige, and the column ran with only the addition of comments from Invesco chairman and CEO Mark Williamson. "And in another case, Bill Owens was disappointed that the editorial board didn't endorse more Republicans this last election," Guzzo goes on. "It's my understanding that Dean told Bill something to the effect that 'just because we supported you doesn't mean we're a Republican newspaper. We support both Republicans and Democrats.'"

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