Trouble by the Bay

Labor strife looms in a western outpost of Dean Singleton's media empire.

When measured by circulation, Denver's MediaNews Group is the seventh-largest newspaper company in these United States, with a roster of more than 120 publications topped by the Denver Post. But until recent years, MediaNews CEO Dean Singleton, who put together this sprawling enterprise and watches over its day-to-day operation, received comparatively little attention or respect from the big boys of journalism.

No more. Since earning publisher-of-the-year honors in 2001 from Editor & Publisher, a media trade magazine, and being named chairman of the Newspaper Association of America several months back, Singleton has seen his profile rise in significant ways. Emblematic of this change was "Newsman Vs. Businessman, All in One Person," a September 2 personality piece that appeared in the media establishment's most hallowed daily, the New York Times. The article, penned by Times notable Felicity Barringer, was an unexpectedly benign offering that drew blood only when it underlined MediaNews's ratio of debt ($995 million) to cash flow (an estimated $150 to $160 million for fiscal year 2002). Many people in Singleton's position would have viewed this as a lucky break -- but the feisty press baron was disappointed anyway and shot off a personal letter to Barringer telling her so.

"There was nothing in the story that I objected to, really, but I just thought it was shallow," Singleton says. "I gave her four hours of my time, Jody [Lodovic, MediaNews's president] gave her two, Greg [Moore, the Post's editor] gave her one or two. She spent two days in Denver and one or two days in Salt Lake, but there was nothing substantive in there. I've known Felicity for years and have a lot of respect for her, so I wrote her to give her my view. I told her she ought to give her travel expenses back to the company."

Union leader Sean Holstege believes that Dean Singleton's Bay Area papers fund the Denver Post.
Anthony Pidgeon
Union leader Sean Holstege believes that Dean Singleton's Bay Area papers fund the Denver Post.

Other major publications have been tougher on Singleton of late, including the Wall Street Journal, whose August 1 report, "In Victory for Mormons, Control of Salt Lake Tribune Shifts," was as unequivocal as its headline. The Tribune is partnered in a joint operating agreement with the Deseret News, a Salt Lake City paper that's owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and many observers believe Singleton sucked up to the church in order to gain its support for his Tribune purchase. By way of bolstering this theory, the Journal quoted a report from Deseret chairman Glen Snarr to LDS higher-ups stating that "if the church promised not to sue Mr. Singleton for buying the Tribune, 'he will sign an agreement outlining nearly everything we want.'"

Singleton laughed off accusations of being a "Mormon spy" in these pages last year ("Press for Success," August 2, 2001), but there's no question he's been friendlier when dealing with his Deseret News counterparts than were the Tribune's previous masters. On September 27, the News announced that next year it will move from an afternoon to a morning publication schedule -- a long-wished-for switch that the Tribune blocked until Singleton took charge.

Thanks to peace gestures such as these, the Salt Lake market is no longer the most contentious colony in the MediaNews kingdom. That honor belongs instead to California's Bay Area, where Singleton owns a handful of papers known collectively as the Alameda Newspaper Group. Bargaining for a new labor pact is at a standstill there, and the relationship between workers and management is getting dicier by the minute, thanks in part to MediaNews's combination of foot-dragging and acquisitiveness. At the same time the company was declining to give requested raises to workers who are sure they're being severely underpaid, it was finalizing its purchase of another nearby publication, the Vacaville Reporter.

Actions like these explain a handout that recently made the rounds at the Oakland Tribune, the largest of the ANG papers, with a circulation just north of 60,000. In the homemade document, Singleton and his MediaNews partner, Richard Scudder, are likened to a pair of characters from The Simpsons: greedy gazillionaire Mr. Burns and his obsequious right-hand minion, Smithers. The following dialogue appears beneath a photo of Singleton and Scudder:

"Dean 'Smithers' Singleton: 'Well, sir, we pay our workers a pittance and switch their beats around at our whim, and we can still afford to buy more newspapers with the money they're making for us.'"

"Richard 'Mr. Burns' Scudder: 'Ehhhxcellent!'"

Such resentment isn't a new phenomenon among ANG staffers. "It's no secret we're the cash cow for Denver," says Sean Holstege, an Oakland Tribune transportation writer who serves as vice president of the Northern California Media Workers Guild.

The previous ANG contract took a staggering twelve years to negotiate, and Holstege feels it might never have been inked if employees hadn't made major concessions regarding everything from salaries to sick days. So why sign on the line that is dotted? The idea, Holstege maintains, was to form a foundation on which to build better accords in the future -- and when sessions began in June 2001, he saw reason for optimism. "The meetings were fruitful, and we reached agreement on about a third of the things. They were all non-economic, and we had to concede some stuff, but we picked up some important gains." He also credits MediaNews for not engaging in layoffs following the post-9/11 economic downturn, albeit in a backhanded way: "They've had us down to the bone for so long, there was nothing to lay off."

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