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."

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."

Nonetheless, progress at the negotiating table came to a halt in early August. Holstege says Bob Jendusa, ANG's senior vice president of human resources, who'd been present at all the previous meetings, "changed positions he'd held earlier in the day, and we called him on it."

Jendusa doesn't address this accusation, citing his unwillingness to "negotiate these things in the press," but for whatever reason, several subsequent get-togethers were canceled. Shortly thereafter, a small article about the breakdown turned up in the San Jose Mercury News. The item mentioned that a federal mediator helped the warring parties come to agreement years earlier, which Jendusa interpreted as a signal that one could be of assistance this time around as well. For his part, Holstege thinks it's premature to call in a mediator -- but according to him, MediaNews representatives contacted one without consulting the union, "which violates a law that says both sides have to consent to mediation and then sit down with a list of potential negotiators and pick one mutually. They didn't do any of that."

In response, the Guild filed a pair of objections with the National Labor Relations Board on September 13. "We alleged that the company was refusing to bargain based on the chain of events," Holstege says. "And we filed a charge of harassment, generally, because we have increasing evidence in the work site of supervisors telling employees that they can't talk labor at work." Before the filing, workers intermittently picketed ANG papers -- on their own time, Holstege stresses. Afterward (on September 16, the day of a canceled negotiation), about fifty ANG unionists staged a public demonstration in Jack London Square, an Oakland tourist attraction.

"We chose that spot because we wanted visibility in the community," Holstege says. "Previously, our protests were to build internal support. But with the charges we filed and their latest antics -- their obvious union-busting techniques -- we felt it had become a community matter."

Holstege can't help but wonder if ANG is trying to goad his membership into striking -- speculation that mystifies Jendusa. "I don't know why Sean would say that," he allows. "All we want to do is negotiate a new contract that's in the best interest of the company and the workforce. And even though the progress has been slow, we were making progress." He adds, "We feel strongly that a federal mediator could help both parties, and that's something we're interested in."

As for Singleton, he says he hasn't been briefed on the ins and outs of the ANG dispute. But he certainly has an opinion about it. "Any time bargaining takes longer than you hoped it would, you have people who are unhappy," he says. "But the problem is, we've got a bunch of thirty- to sixty-thousand-circulation dailies out there, and they'd like to have the same contract as the San Francisco Chronicle, which has a 600,000 circulation. They're never going to get that, and it takes them years to understand it."

Holstege denies the allegation that he's looking for Chronicle-size bucks: He wants salaries to be on par with those at the rival Contra Costa Times, a regional newspaper whose various editions sell just short of 200,000 copies on Sundays, as opposed to ANG's cumulative Sunday circulation of around 240,000 -- a number routinely used to coax advertisers into making group buys. But Singleton doesn't have time to worry about such quibbling. He's too busy picking up new goodies, like The Original Apartment Magazine, a free biweekly publication that circulates in Southern California. MediaNews bought it last week for an undisclosed sum.

That's the way the large get larger.

Air check: "Good Sex, Bad Sex," the August 29 edition of this column, shared the dilemma faced by Pat Jagos, owner of Fascinations Superstores, an Arizona-based chain of sexually themed shops, who was suddenly rejected by Denver radio stations that had once gladly accepted his commercials. As it turns out, Jagos isn't the only businessman having such problems. Tom Kodner, whose retail outlet Secrets, located at 2280 South Quebec Street, sells a wide range of lovemaking accoutrements, is having equal difficulty getting metro-area signals to run his advertisements.

"It's the height of hypocrisy," Kodner says. "All these morning-show guys talk about is sex, and the stations' billboards scream sex -- but they won't take my ads, even though there's nothing overtly sexual about them. What it comes down to is, you can use sex to sell just about anything, but you can't use sex to sell sex."

Kodner estimates his annual advertising budget at $225,000, with $150,000 earmarked for radio, a medium that's worked well for him since he took over Secrets three years ago. At first he spent most of his dough with the Peak, focusing his buys on the heavy-breathing Howard Stern show. After the station was sold and returned to a variation on its original adult-rock format, Stern was disappeared, but Kodner stuck around until the Peak was peddled again, this time to a company that installed a Spanish-language format. "When it became Spanish, everything stopped," he says. A similar scenario took place at 99.5 FM. When the outlet was a classic-rock specialist known as the Hawk, Kodner was allowed to advertise, but not after new owners instituted a somewhat milder rock approach under a new moniker, the Mountain. "They called me the day of the change and said, 'Sayonara,'" Kodner remembers.

Stations owned by Clear Channel, far and away the nation's biggest radio conglomerate, won't consider broadcasting Secrets spots, and Jefferson-Pilot, a concern that owns five stations in Denver, isn't much more receptive, Kodner says. But representatives of the corporations have been more than willing to work with him in other ways. "I've gone on [Jefferson-Pilot's] KS-107.5 -- brought along vibrators, vibrating panties, whatever, and we talk about my store. But they won't let me advertise," he says. "And I used to be able to do on-air appearances with Uncle Nasty on [Clear Channel's] KBPI when I had porn stars coming to town. They'd let the porn stars come on and talk about anything and everything under the sun sexually, yet have never once taken a commercial, because they won't take any adult ads."

Still, Kodner sees Alice, at 105.9 FM, as "probably the worst, the most hypocritical" of the stations that have blown him off. "I've sponsored their 'Naughty Mommies' contest several times -- and who else are they going to get to do that? A tire company? Besides, my ads have the most innocent copy you can imagine. I pushed the envelope a couple of years ago with this ad where someone was in confession, saying, 'Forgive me, Father. I went to Secrets.' But we haven't done anything like that since, and they're still refusing to take them. They said goodbye to a $60,000 contract because they're afraid of other advertisers being offended."

Not that Alice is entirely averse to collecting Kodner's cash. Last week, a salesman asked him to be a co-sponsor of the "World's Largest Office Party," an event hosted by the morning team of Greg Thunder and Bo Reynolds that's scheduled for November 22 at the Hyatt Regency. The offer came with a request for $2,500; Kodner would rather eat broken glass than pay the sum. "They'd love to take my money to have a booth there, but they won't let me on their airwaves," he fumes.

Fortunately for Kodner, he's found at least one Denver radio station willing to include his commercials in its programming -- and surprisingly enough, that outlet is KOOL 105, the city's chief purveyor of rock oldies. Because of its format, KOOL has plenty of graying listeners whom younger types might suspect of being prudish and thin-skinned when it comes to anything smacking of sex. But thus far, Kodner says, his ads on KOOL have appeared without significant incident.

Even so, Kodner remains frustrated by the limitations being put on his ability to advertise in this market. "Denver likes to think it's not a cowtown anymore -- that it's trendy and hip and with it. But I think this whole debacle says a lot about where this town really is. It's John Ashcroft's world; we just live in it."

The joys of automation: In an article published earlier this year ("Going Public," February 21), Max Wycisk, president of Colorado Public Radio, said the service pre-recorded the vast majority of its programming, including many donation pitches being made this week as part of its fall subscription campaign. The reason is quality control. "Over the years, I've learned that one of the things people value about public radio is that the programming is distilled," he said. "If you get a chance to edit it, you increase your ability to make sure that what you're saying is absolutely clear."

Of course, the odds that an embarrassing screwup will remind listeners that they're hearing canned segments, and not human beings speaking to them in real time, goes up, too.

Examples? Here are two.

Several weeks ago, All Things Considered, National Public Radio's popular afternoon-drive staple that airs locally on KCFR-AM/1340, featured a humorous segment about what was dubbed "the 'Potato Ball' Incident." The yarn, about minor-league catcher Dave Bresnahan's decision to substitute a spud for a baseball during a 1987 game, had gone on for several minutes and was nearing its punchline when, without notice, CPR computers inserted a local break that said the upcoming portion of the show would be devoted to (guess what) "the 'Potato Ball' Incident." By the time the announcement had run its course, the punchline had long since been delivered, leaving those who'd been waiting to hear what had been done with the potato feeling thoroughly mashed.

More recently, on September 30, a caller reports that an afternoon update on the network told in detail about the speech delivered in Denver that day by President George W. Bush. Too bad Bush's visit had actually taken place three days earlier, on September 27.

There's no news like old news.

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