Press for Success
For the truest of Christian believers, Good Friday is among the most sacred dates on the calendar. In America, though, very few receive time off to commemorate it. Employers who would never dream of asking people on their payrolls to toil away on Christmas typically don't think twice about requiring workers to put in eight hours on the anniversary of the day when Jesus Christ was fitted with a crown of thorns and nailed to the cross on which He died for the sins committed by each of us -- bosses included.
But that's not the way it is at MediaNews Group. William Dean Singleton, co-founder, vice chairman, CEO and driving force behind the firm, which owns the Denver Post, fifty other daily newspapers across the country and an ever-growing network of subsidiary publications and media properties, makes sure of that. He's been called a lot of nasty things over the years: miserly, greedy, inhumane. But at the same time, he remains serious about his faith.
A plaque emblazoned with the "Creed of a Christian" occupies a prominent space on his mammoth desk, located in an office atop the Denver Post building that offers as spectacular a view as any in Colorado, and Singleton says he does his best to live by its dictates. Maybe that's why on April 13, Good Friday 2001, when the noses of most U.S. employees can be found pressed hard to the nearest grindstone, MediaNews staffers are enjoying the blessing of a holiday.
The sole exception to this rule is Singleton himself. Two days earlier, American Furniture Warehouse owner Jake Jabs, among the biggest advertisers in the state, appeared at a hearing before U.S. District Judge John Kane to ask for a temporary injunction halting the joint operating agreement that had just bound together the business operations of the Post and its longtime competitor, the Rocky Mountain News. Singleton didn't give Jabs, whose photo is displayed prominently in his office, much chance for success in his quest, and he was right: Judge Kane smacked down the arguments offered by Jabs and Ryan Ross, a journalist and former Westword scribe who joined the court action, like logy houseflies.
But because Kane let the Jabs matter drag into a second day before bringing out his swatter, Singleton was forced to cancel a trip to Alaska, where he owns a couple of newspapers and a TV station. As a result, Singleton is still in Denver when Good Friday rolls around -- and while he could easily justify steering clear of company headquarters for 24 hours, he's unable to stay away.
"I don't have a hobby," explains this married father of three. "I don't play golf. I don't take long vacations. I'm just all consumed with newspapers."
And so, on this Good Friday morning, Singleton sits virtually alone in the MediaNews suite, undisturbed for hours by anything other than a Federal Express deliveryman, the fellow charged with watering the plants, a nettlesome reporter and the occasional phone call. These last interruptions aren't, for the most part, earthshaking. At one point, Post columnist Chuck Green, who after the announcement of the proposed JOA identified Singleton in print as "the Superman of the American newspaper industry" (talk about job security), rings, because he lost his W-2 form and wants to know whom he should call to get another one prior to April 15, tax day -- a laughably trivial query to be directed at a captain of finance, albeit one Singleton handles without complaint. But a few moments later, when the phone jangles again, something more noteworthy is at stake. Singleton picks up the receiver, exchanges a few brief words with the person on the other end of the line and hangs up. As he does so, he says, "I just bought another paper."
Singleton makes this comment as casually as the average person might talk about purchasing a three-pack of underwear, which says less about the acquisition in question -- the Ruidoso News, a daily based in Ruidoso, New Mexico -- than it does about his world as a whole. And a nice world it is. Although Singleton likes to present himself as a regular guy, saying, "I live well, but not extravagantly," his Cherry Hills Village home is just down the road from one belonging to heiress/philanthropist Sharon Magness, recently identified by the Rocky as Colorado's "queen." Similarly, he describes the party he's tossing this Saturday to mark his fiftieth birthday (which was on August 1) as just a little get-together with old friends. But the details put things in perspective: At first, Singleton hoped to line up the Eagles to play in his backyard, but the timing of their August 11 appearance at the new Invesco Field at Mile High made that impossible. So he's having to make do with Michael Martin Murphey, the Fifth Dimension and the Four Tops. Poor guy.
When asked if reaching the half-century mark holds any special significance for him, Singleton responds with a nonchalant "not really." But other remarks suggest the opposite is true -- especially when the topic turns to the Post, MediaNews's flagship and the publication that's obviously closest to him. Ever since the announcement of the joint operating agreement last year, Singleton has been confronted with earlier quotes he made vowing to fight the Rocky to the last drop of ink, including one in which he compared a JOA to "kissing your sister." Moreover, the Rocky's shaky financial status, which became public during the JOA process, implies that the Post might have polished off its rival in short order had a cease-fire not been called when it was. But Singleton stands behind his decision to make nice, which he says was motivated in large part by his desire to improve the Post's quality.
"I want the Post to be a great newspaper, and the Post today is a good newspaper, not a great newspaper," he says. "I wanted to spend the money to make it a great newspaper, but I knew that I could never spend enough to make it great while the newspaper war was going on. And I didn't want my kids to make it a great newspaper. I want to make it a great newspaper.
"I'm going to be fifty, and I do have some health issues," he adds, referring to the multiple sclerosis with which he's dealt for many years; he says the ailment only slows him down about one day per month. "But I expect to live a long time, and I wanted to get on with my life. And the JOA allowed me to get on with the business of making the Post a great newspaper."
Such pronouncements couldn't be further removed from the image of Singleton painted by his many detractors, who charge him with a wide variety of sins, including favoring cut-rate journalism. In their view, Singleton is largely culpable for the ugly deaths of two major metropolitan dailies he once owned -- the Dallas Times Herald and the Houston Post -- and the decline in quality at many others in his portfolio. He's only concerned with the bottom line, they say, and doesn't care about the jobs he's eliminated, the salaries he's reduced, the benefits he's sliced or the lives he's affected for the worse. And they offer plenty of evidence to back up these claims.
How, then, to reconcile these two Singletons -- the one who speaks about journalism with the passion and enthusiasm of someone eager to leave a legacy of excellence for future generations, and the one who's become richer than Croesus by turning failing newspapers into profit rockets using the most cold-eyed of methods? Is he sincere about making the Post, whose Pulitzer Prize win for coverage of the Columbine shootings fills him with pride, into a media institution on par with the New York Times and the Boston Globe, as he says is his goal? If so, will he finance this mission by permanently relegating the rest of his papers to mediocrity and sentencing employees outside Denver to an eternity of crummy wages, sub-par working conditions and zero job security?
The answers to these questions won't come from Singleton, who's uncommonly accessible for a person in his position; last week he spent an hour on live TV being quizzed by talk-show host Peter Boyles. He holds saints in high regard, but he's never claimed to be one, and as he enters his sixth decade, he seems secure with himself and certain about where he wants to go from here -- critics be damned.
"Newspapers are not a growth business," he says. "If all I was interested in was a return in capital, I'd sell the company and put my money somewhere else. But that's not why we're here. We're here because we want to be here, and we do what we do because we want to do it. It has nothing to do with dollars and cents except that dollars and cents keep the engine running -- and you've got to keep the engine running. I've told our folks many times: You can go down with the ship, but you still went down."
Whether it's because of his success (Media-News generated revenue last year of more than $1 billion) or due to the behavior of his rivals (the Knight-Ridder chain, for instance, is drastically cutting back at its papers, pri- marily because its profits aren't as high as they once were), Singleton is experiencing a reputation upgrade. Last year, the business magazine Forbes referred to him as "the notorious bad boy of cheapskate publishing" -- a fairly standard description. But in April, Editor & Publisher, a widely read journalism trade magazine, named him publisher of the year in a respectful, even laudatory article whose subhead declared, "Love him or hate him, MediaNews CEO Dean Singleton is proof that cutthroat evolution is alive and well in the newspaper business."
On E&P's cover, Singleton stands on a hay-sprinkled patch of range land with one arm around a cow, looking uncomfortable as all get-out in Western duds that seem fresh off the rack; the jeans are marked by creases as sharp as stilettos. But even though he appears to be a drugstore cowboy in the shot, he was actually reared on a Texas ranch thirty miles from the modest community of Graham, located near the Oklahoma border between Fort Worth and Wichita Falls.
One of five children (an older brother was killed in a car crash at 21), Singleton is portrayed by his sister, Pat Robinson, who's been his personal assistant for fifteen years, as a precocious type who from early on was searching for ways to make a buck. Ten years his senior, Robinson recalls that when Singleton was ten or eleven, he co-signed a bank loan with his father to buy a pig to raise and show in a 4-H contest. It turned out to be a good investment. "You always made a profit on something like that, because there are always people who buy them to support the kids," she says about her baby brother, who's a frequent livestock buyer at the Colorado State Fair. "Even then, he had a knowledge of that sort of thing."
He also loved newspapers, which he viewed as a link to the universe beyond the borders of the ranch. "The most important part of the day, other than when I was in school, was 10:15 in the morning, when the mail came -- because that's when we got that day's newspaper," he says. "It was really the only way we kept up with what was going on."
When he reached fifteen, Singleton remembers, "I got my driver's license, and my father told me that if I could get a real job in town I didn't have to work on the ranch." To that end, he applied for a position at the Graham News and wound up as sports editor -- a title that seems considerably less highfalutin when Singleton reveals that he was actually the only person in the paper's sports department and one of just four in the newsroom. (His oldest son, Will, fifteen, is starting his newspaper career at a higher level. He's currently interning at the Denver Post, and received a co-byline on July 29 for a story about underage teens, such as himself, buying R-rated-movie tickets.)
Young Dean loved his duties at the Graham News and happily worked himself to exhaustion -- a possible reason that he doesn't view job conditions that others revile as being anything to gripe about. "I'd get out of school at 2:45 in the afternoon and go to the newspaper and work until midnight, sleep a few hours, then go to the mailroom, deliver bundles of papers to the stores around town and then go back to school," he says. Over 10,000 inches of his copy was published in commercial newspapers by the time he graduated from high school, thus earning him recognition as the 51st member of the "Big Inch Club," sponsored by Quill & Scroll. In doing so, he made the career of his journalism teacher, whom he still refers to as "Miss Maxwell." He says, "I saw her at my thirtieth high school reunion a year or two ago -- she was about 87 years old -- and she told me, 'I only got one Big Incher, but I did get one.'"
Upon his graduation, in 1969, Singleton landed a position at the Wichita Falls Times Record News, for which he'd worked as a stringer. He was charged with driving each day to small towns within the paper's 200-mile circulation range "to look for news," which he sees as a great way to find the stories that are too often missed; he hopes that the Denver Post will grow large enough to allow selected staff members to do something comparable. This approach led to his first big story, a page-one Sunday piece about a speech made at a meeting of area Democrats in Quanah, Texas, by the local congressman, who told his audience that the oil depletion allowance, an important tax break for Texas drillers, was about to be axed. "That got picked up nationally," Singleton says, still savoring the scoop.
From there, Singleton skipped first to the Tyler Morning Telegraph and later to the Dallas Morning News, where he worked for over two years as a news editor. (His veteran colleagues needled him about his youth with the nickname "Teeny Weeny Deany.") Singleton lore holds that he also applied at the Dallas Times Herald, but he was turned down for being "too young and too inexperienced," a rejection he crowed about in an ad he placed in Editor & Publisher when, in 1986, he bought the Times Herald. "They...told me to come back in a few years," Singleton wrote. "Well, I guess you could say I'm back."
Not that Singleton let his youth slow him down. In 1972, before his 21st birthday, he was asked by a couple of businesspeople in Graham, including Ed Eakin, to start a paper to compete with the Graham Leader, a publication perceived as being anti-growth by the powers that were. Eakin, who's now 73 and runs a self-named publishing company, says he met with Singleton "in Jacksboro, Texas, at a place called the Green Frog Cafe, and we made a deal that we would print the paper and finance it, and Dean would run it and have half interest."
After taking out a $10,000 loan to buy his piece of the project, Singleton launched the Clarendon Press, which he says "just kicked ass; we put out a really good newspaper. I got a couple of kids out of college to help write news and covered real stories. The Leader was primarily an editorial page with a lot of chicken-dinner news. But we put out a real newspaper -- covered meetings and city hall and the whole county."
Eakin also backed Singleton in the purchase of another paper, the Azle News, which did well, too. But, as Eakin says, "Dean was always a step ahead of everybody," and when Singleton learned in mid-1975 that the E.W. Scripps company was planning to shut down the much larger Fort Worth Press, he decided, with the encouragement of several businessmen, including the late George DeArmond, that he should buy it.
Even Ed Estlow, then the president of Scripps, thought this was a crazy idea. "I told him I didn't think it was practical, because the Fort Worth Star Telegram, the other paper there, had the market wrapped up pretty well," allows Estlow, 81, a longtime Denverite and unabashed Singleton fan who's been on the University of Denver's board of trustees for over a quarter century. "I didn't think he could make it."
Truer words were never spoken. Singleton bought the Press for the bargain-basement price of $100,000, but in the next several months he ran through much more than that -- "$500,000 or $600,000 worth of loans," he says -- without making an appreciable dent in the Star Telegram's armor. After the Press closed in November 1975, leaving behind angry reporters who claimed that they hadn't been paid for two weeks, Singleton sold all his weeklies to help settle the balance. By his reckoning, he got within $300,000 of doing so. "There were no personal guarantees on that money, but I grew up in the ranch world, where if you owed somebody money, you paid them; it didn't matter if you needed to or not. So I eventually paid it all off. It took me ten years, but I did it."
That may not tell the whole story. Bill McAda, who'd edited the Press for Singleton and served as vice president of what was then called Singleton Enterprises, told Westword in 1987 that the IRS was owed $122,000 in employee-withholding taxes after the Press's demise, of which DeArmond paid a relatively minor portion. As for Eakin, he suggests that Singleton still owes him $15,000 following the sale of the papers with which they were associated.
Singleton counters that the debt in question was actually assumed by Eakin and a partner as part of their contractual agreement. "I think Ed just didn't understand the transaction, which he was minimally involved in," Singleton says. He adds, by way of demonstrating that he bears no ill will toward Eakin, that years later, while at the Houston Post, he threw a lavish party for one of Eakin's authors.
Eakin doesn't exhibit anger toward Singleton, either, and marvels at his success. "Dean was just a very charismatic person," he says. "He could talk you into just about anything." But he confesses that "it saddens me that he had to use some of the methods he used to get where he is. He was so talented that he probably could have gotten there without being so neglectful of other human beings."
For Singleton, the lessons learned from the collapse of the Fort Worth Press were simple. "I found out that you had to have a business plan. I didn't have a business plan, and you've got to have a business plan up front, and know exactly what you want to do, what you're going to spend, and what you're going to bring in. And the business plan has got to produce a profit. My motto from that point on was, 'More cash in than cash out.'"
Whether or not he'd ever get another chance to exercise this hard-earned knowledge was another matter. As Singleton puts it, "I was broke, I didn't have any money, I owed the banks, and I didn't have a job." But in a matter of months, he bounced back. First, Singleton helped a Boston company sell a chain of suburban weeklies in Massachusetts that had defaulted, thereby earning enough money to right himself financially and buy some decent suits.
Re-energized, he began looking into purchasing an 8,000-circulation daily in Westfield, Massachusetts. He was about to pick it up with help from his new friends in Boston when he received a call from Joe Allbritton, a Texas banker who'd recently wound up with a package of media assets in Washington, D.C., including the Washington Star, after the previous owner, who'd received a personal loan from Allbritton, ran out of dough. According to Singleton, Allbritton, who didn't respond to Westword's request for an interview, offered to buy the Westfield paper for Singleton if he'd help Allbritton with the Star. Singleton promptly accepted, and after turning around Westfield ("The costs were too high -- we were in the black at the end of a month"), he picked up another three papers in New Jersey before moving to Washington, D.C., as president of the Star, circulation 250,000. At the time, Singleton was 27.
Allbritton was eventually forced to sell the Star because of FCC rules concerning cross-ownership, which state that one company can't own both a major newspaper and a television station in the same city. (Cross-ownership is among the hottest topics in the media business today; more on that later.) But Singleton stuck around, becoming president of Allbritton Communications. Then, in the early '80s, he was approached by Katherine Graham, legendary publisher of the Washington Post, who asked him to take over one of her troubled New Jersey papers, the Trenton Times. This offer led to discussions between Singleton, Graham and multimillionaire investor Warren Buffett, in which Graham and Buffett offered to bankroll a media company that Singleton would head. But Singleton says the concept fell apart after Buffett turned his nose up at the Gloucester County Times in Woodbury, New Jersey, the first paper he wished to buy: "It only cost $9.7 million, and Warren didn't want to get involved with anything that cost less than $100 million." He notes that he and Buffett reminisced about this period last week at Graham's funeral, which was among the largest gatherings of politicians (Dick Cheney, Bill Clinton) and business titans (Buffett, Bill Gates) in years.
With Buffett out of the picture, Singleton teamed instead with Richard Scudder, a member of a venerable New Jersey newspaper family whom he had met in 1977 while overseeing the Paterson News for Allbritton and while Scudder headed Garden State Paper Co., a newsprint provider. "My people told me Mr. Singleton's paper owed them a stack of money, and they couldn't get it -- so could I see what I could do?" says Scudder, Singleton's fifty-fifty partner in MediaNews and still an active participant in day-to-day operations despite being in his late eighties. "I went over there, and Dean said, 'If you won't give me newsprint, do you want the paper?' Well, I didn't want that, so we agreed that we would continue to ship paper to Dean at more than the going price per ton, and Dean never missed one payment."
In 1983, with Scudder behind him, Singleton bought the Gloucester County Times, followed in short order by two more papers in the vicinity, thereby forming what's known in newspaper circles as a cluster. This technique is Singleton's claim to fame in the industry: If he didn't invent the concept, he certainly perfected it. The idea is, as Scudder says, "eminently logical," allowing a cluster's owner to combine many costly aspects of newspapering, including printing, composing, distribution and even reporting, saving money each step of the way. As an added bonus, the circulation figures of the papers can be combined and sold to advertisers at a higher rate. Today, for instance, MediaNews owns the Los Angeles Daily News and a smattering of dailies in adjacent communities throughout the L.A. region whose total circulation is nearly equal to that of the News's primary competitor, the mighty Los Angeles Times (650,000 versus 750,000). Better yet, the distribution is concentrated in the suburbs, where residents generally fit a more affluent demographic than citizens of L.A. proper, making a group buy extremely attractive even if none of Media-News's papers have the reputation or name recognition of the Times. "The suburbs are where the future is," Singleton says.
Within a few short years, Singleton and Scudder built up clusters in Northern California and Ohio, giving Singleton the financial wherewithal to consider going after a bigger fish. He got his opportunity in 1986, when Times Mirror, owner of the Los Angeles Times, looked to unload the Dallas Times Herald. "We mortgaged ourselves to buy it," Singleton concedes, but that didn't stop him from also inquiring about the availability of the Denver Post, which Times Mirror had bought in 1980. "They said, 'We'll never sell the Denver Post,'" Singleton recalls. "They said, 'We can win in Denver, and we can't win in Dallas; it's destined to be number two forever.' So I said, 'Okay, but can you put in the agreement that if you ever sell Denver, you'll sell it to us?' And they said, 'Oh sure, that's easy.'"
Six months after taking over the Times Herald, Singleton says he realized that the Times Mirror execs had been correct about Dallas: "I realized we could never win, and that holding on as the number-two paper in a changing economy wouldn't be easy." But these factors didn't hold him back when the Houston Post was placed on the block by the corporate owner of the Toronto Sun. He immediately began negotiating to purchase it and was a month deep into talks when he was summoned by Bob Erburu, president of Times Mirror, who'd changed his tune about Denver.
Singleton says, "He told me, 'We've done research on the marketplace, and our entire management team agrees that we should go tabloid to compete with the News. That leaves me with three choices. I can go tabloid, I can completely change the management team for the third time in seven years, or I can sell it -- and I don't want to go tabloid, and I don't want to change management teams, so I'm going to sell it. Here are the financials, go back to your hotel room, and we can talk tomorrow.'"
Poring over the records, Singleton realized that he was faced with an intractable dilemma. "I really wanted to buy the Denver Post, and I really wanted to buy the Houston Post, but I couldn't afford to buy both of them." After pausing for effect, he says, "So I bought both of them."
In saving the Denver Post, Singleton got a big assist from Times Mirror, which wanted to get rid of the paper in the worst way -- and, from its own financial standpoint, did just that. The company sold the Post to MediaNews for $95 million, roughly the same price it had paid seven years before, but threw in new printing facilities that had cost $77 million for no extra charge. Furthermore, $70 million of the purchase price was paid for in notes, meaning that Times Mirror essentially financed Singleton's purchase. (This bit of history would repeat itself a decade later, when Times Mirror loaned MediaNews $50 million to help him buy the Los Angeles Daily News, with which it's now competing -- a bit of business acumen that leaves Singleton watchers in the industry slack-jawed with admiration.)
Singleton also demonstrated plenty of common sense in the way he set about returning the Post to profitability. He moved the editorial department away from regional enterprise pieces, in which the previous regime had specialized, in favor of a renewed emphasis on metro Denver. He converted the Post to direct billing years before the Rocky did so, which cut back dramatically on expenses associated with "float," the industry term used to describe papers distributed to people whose subscriptions have lapsed or whose bills haven't been paid. And he focused closely on myriad details Times Mirror had overlooked, no matter how seemingly insignificant.
"We bought the paper five years after it moved from afternoons to mornings, and all the newspaper racks were on the wrong side of the street for the bus routes," Singleton says. "The Rocky, which had been the morning paper for a long time, was on the bus stops coming in, and the Post was on the bus stops going out, where nobody waiting for a bus in the morning could get them without crossing the street."
But if Singleton worked miracles in Denver, he failed to conjure magic in Dallas. He wound up peddling the Times Herald for $110 million in 1988, just two years after buying it for the same amount, to a group led by John Buzzetta, a longtime associate who had been the Herald's publisher; he says he did so mainly to offset the cost of the Denver and Houston purchases. Three years later, following a desperate effort to keep it afloat, Buzzetta sold the assets of the paper to A.H. Belo Corp., owner of the Morning News, which promptly shut it down -- a demise for which Singleton accepts no blame. "When I sold Dallas, there was no reason for it to disappear," he says. "It positioned itself pretty well as the blue-collar alternative in Dallas, although a lot of categories in advertising revenues and demographic categories benefited the News. I think what happened is they took on way too much debt. They had good, positive cash flow, but they didn't have enough to cover the debt."
What Singleton fails to mention is that much of the debt was owed to him. But Buzzetta, who now owns Van Zandt Newspapers, a small chain in Texas, doesn't point fingers at MediaNews. "The debt was part of it, but only up to a point," he says. "We were also fighting the trend against second newspapers in two-newspaper towns and a recession that lasted a long, long time. The recession lasted so long that even without the debt, the paper would have been in trouble."
Perhaps, but these extenuating circumstances don't prevent many onetime Times Herald staffers from looking back on Singleton's tenure with an anger that seems undimmed by the passing years. "I don't think Dean ever gave a shit about whether the journalism was good or bad," says David Pasztor, a Times Herald veteran who's now executive associate editor with New Times, owner of Westword. "All he cared about was money."
Pasztor joined the Times Herald in 1982, and although he acknowledges that Times Mirror didn't operate a very tight ship, he feels the quality of the news product was high: "In the year before Dean bought it, we had four Pulitzer finalists. Needless to say, that never happened again." One of Singleton's first moves was to install as editor David Burgin, among the most controversial journalists in the country. Pasztor calls Burgin "a very explosive, often mean-tempered, occasionally charming guy who's not particularly well-rounded as an editor -- which was a pretty good indication of how things would go under Dean. It was all style over substance."
Singleton didn't order layoffs following his purchase, Pasztor says, but "the staff was cut anyway, by departures. You had a huge wave of editorial employees who left the paper in the year after Dean bought it, to the point where we'd put lists of people who quit on the terminals so we could track where they went. And the reason a lot of them left was because they knew Dean didn't give a shit if the paper folded so long as he got his money out of it. He just didn't care."
The situation was somewhat different in Houston. Singleton held onto the Houston Post until the bitter end, eventually selling it in 1995 for $120 million to the happy men and women of the Hearst Corp., owner of the Houston Chronicle, who immediately shuttered it. Yet Singleton says he knew after only a couple of years that the Houston paper wouldn't fly. "Houston was a white-collar paper in a blue-collar market," he says. "We had the upper-end demos, but we could never make any Sunday gains. We fought that battle for seven years, but never could win it, and I finally came to the conclusion that in Houston we'd be strictly number two forever, and Denver could be number one. So I sold Houston to Hearst and decided to concentrate on Denver."
Considering that the Houston Post had been in existence since 1880, this assessment seems awfully sentiment free. But Singleton swears he did everything he could to sell the paper to an outfit that would keep it alive, including suggesting a joint operating agreement, which Hearst snubbed, and making presentations to 45 different companies. After the sale, Singleton told the press there hadn't been any viable offers, but he now confirms rumors that A.H. Belo, buyer of the Times Herald, had stepped up to the plate with a $70 million proposition; after a letter of intent was signed, he says, Belo's board turned thumbs down. Singleton doesn't consider his earlier comments misleading, because the Belo proposal was withdrawn -- but he insists he would have accepted it even though the Hearst bid was already on the table. "At $70 million, we would have lost money, and at $120 million we made money; we paid $100 million for it. But that would have been the proudest $50 million I would ever have lost."
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."
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."
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."
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.
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.'"
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.'"
Guzzo understands full well just how good he's got it at the Post. At a time when American newspapers are cutting back more drastically than they have in decades, Singleton is sticking by his pledge to add one hundred people to the Post editorial staff over the next few years. (Twelve new positions have been budgeted for the current fiscal year, with the "ramp-up" set to be accelerated if and when the economy improves.) "There's no other publisher I know of who is talking about the sort of ambitious plans Dean is talking about for the Post," Guzzo says. "And the sorts of additions he's talking about are not what you'd associate with someone who's concerned first and exclusively with the bottom line. That tells me that he's genuinely dedicated to having a paper that's very well regarded throughout the journalistic community."
Even Richard Scudder doesn't think the Post has reached this level yet, Pulitzer or no Pulitzer: Singleton confesses that his partner of eighteen years sometimes derides the paper as "dull." (When asked for confirmation, Scudder merely laughs.) But are other MediaNews properties financing these aspirations? Sean Holstege, a regional transportation reporter for the Oakland Tribune, and an ANG union rep, can't help but wonder. Holstege says he understands that the Post is Singleton's top priority, and he doesn't begrudge him that: "It's his money, and he should be able to allocate his resources how he sees fit." But he thinks "it's got to be equitable and reasonable."
Based on the Northern California guild's analysis of MediaNews's financial report, Holstege says, ANG contributes 9 percent of the company's circulation but 18 percent of its revenues, while the Post counts for 29 percent of the circulation but 23 percent of revenues. "We're the cash cow, and they're the Pulitzer cow. And that can be frustrating, because we feel we have the talent here to write Pulitzer Prize-winning stories all day and all night if we had the resources to do it right, but we don't. We've got people who have to live in single-occupancy hotels, because they aren't paid enough to live anywhere better."
Disparities do exist, Singleton says: "We've got some newspapers that do extremely well and do a lot of good stuff, and we've got newspapers that are marginally profitable and can't do as much. The bottom line dictates how much you can do." And because the JOA, among other things, has boosted the Post, the sky's the limit in Denver.
"I think we do a solid job in local news coverage, a solid job in sports, a solid job in business," says Singleton. "Our business section could be better, our local news coverage could be better. But I'm not just looking to do an even better job covering city hall or suburban beats. I want to do the things that great newspapers do. I want another five people in the Washington bureau, so that we can cover our Washington delegation a lot better than we do. And I want us to do those extra stories that a good newspaper would never have done, but a great newspaper does all the time. I want us to do really important stories that you really need to know, even if you didn't know that you needed to know them before you read them.
"I don't want to put out a great newspaper so people will say, 'He put out a great newspaper,'" he continues. "I want to put out a great newspaper because great newspapers do great things."
The decline in the number of stories about Singleton the penny-pinching, tight-assed newspaper vulture has everything to do with MediaNews's improving fortunes. In the old days, Singleton says, he could only afford papers that needed major surgery, but now he can pick up properties that are in considerably better shape.
Still, he doesn't shy away from scraps. Most potential buyers kept their distance when the Salt Lake Tribune came on the market, knowing that the paper was involved in an extremely messy JOA with the cross-town Deseret News, which is owned by the Mormon Church. But MediaNews jumped into the fray anyhow, buying it last year. Since then, there have been a flurry of court actions involving the management team at the Tribune, which claims to hold an option to buy the paper next July, and the honchos at Deseret, who accuse Tribune managers of preventing them from switching to a morning publishing schedule. Deseret publisher Jim Wall, who previously worked for Singleton at several MediaNews papers, most recently the Denver Post, also holds that his team has the right to approve or disapprove its future JOA partner, "and I think we have a good one in Dean Singleton. I was with him for nearly ten years, and we didn't always agree on how to run a ship. But his integrity was never questioned, and that makes all the difference."
Wall's counterpart at the Tribune, Dominic Welch, who's publisher of the paper and head of the agency that handles business matters for the Tribune and the Deseret News, didn't return Westword's calls for comment. But in previous interviews, Welch has all but accused Singleton of being a Mormon spy -- a charge that causes Singleton to snicker, lawsuits or no lawsuits. "We think Salt Lake's a great market, and we want to be there for a long, long time," he says. "And we think we'll be able to do that. But if a court tells us we need to sell it down the road, the worst that will happen is that we'll sell it for a very large profit, because with all the problems we bought it very low. So everything will work out fine."
From where Singleton sits, the same can be said about the Denver JOA. It was announced in May of last year ("Don't Bogart That Joint," May 18, 2000), became official in January and was formally implemented on April 7, when the first combined weekend edition of the new era was published. The Justice Department declined to stage hearings that might have slowed the agreement's implementation; protests from advertisers like Jake Jabs were only temporary irritations, and, on six of the seven days per week, circulation numbers aren't plummeting as quickly as some observers predicted. That leaves only the Saturday edition of the paper -- the weekend issue handled by the Rocky Mountain News -- as a major problem. The newspaper has already been redesigned once since its April bow, and a reliable source hints that the Post and News may be considering an amendment to the JOA to allow both papers to publish on Saturday. Ken Lowe, CEO of E.W. Scripps, the Rocky's owner, flat-out denies that, and Singleton won't comment. But Singleton does say, "Saturdays have not worked out as well as we had hoped. Post readers lost their newspaper on Saturday, Rocky readers lost their newspaper on Saturday, and both newspapers were replaced by a new newspaper unfamiliar to both sets of readers, which is why Saturday has met with so many complaints from both readers and advertisers. It's the only part of the JOA that hasn't gone as planned, and we'll obviously have to monitor that as time goes on."
Even if a potential conflict over Saturday is brewing, the decision makers at the Rocky have nothing but laudatory things to say about Singleton -- for public consumption, anyway. John Temple, the paper's editor and president, responded to a query from Westword -- for the first time ever -- in order to pay homage via e-mail. "I wish Dean the best on his fiftieth birthday," Temple writes. "He's a remarkable figure in American journalism and a worthy competitor. No one can doubt his incredible business acumen or his passion for newspapering. I, at least, share the latter trait."
Lowe, for his part, says that in the last year, much of which he spent working in close contact with Singleton, "I've developed a great deal of respect for Dean. I think he's almost a throwback to the publishing entrepreneurs who started family-owned newspapers at the turn of the century: Very solid, a fierce competitor, tremendously loyal to his people and his product, and a lot of fun to be around. Dean takes a big bite out of life no matter what he does.
"I know not everyone has wonderful things to say about him," Lowe acknowledges. "And when someone pulls themselves up by their own bootstraps, as Dean has done, I'm sure they've bruised a few people along the way and had their share of skirmishes. But I think that's just a process of growing up and maturing into the person he is today. He's truly viewed as one of the leaders of newspapers today. He's assuming the mantle, and I think he's wearing it well."
To illustrate the turning of this particular worm, Singleton is currently serving as the vice chairman of the Newspaper Association of America, the most influential organization of its sort in the country, and he will take over as chairman in April 2002. Earlier this year, he was the keynote speaker at the NAA's Nexpo convention in New Orleans, and in discussing the industry downturn, he said, in apparent contradiction of many past dealings, "I urge you to be careful in cutting costs. Cutting isn't always the best answer." A month or so before these comments were made, in March, Singleton eliminated delivery of 18,000 Sunday Posts to North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Utah and Arizona. "When we were in a death struggle with the Rocky, those 18,000 papers were important, but they're not so important now," he says. "And it saved us $6 million a year."
In Singleton's mind, the next big change in the media industry will be the elimination of the cross-ownership rule: FCC chairman Michael Powell, son of Secretary of State Colin Powell, has strongly intimated that this regulation is on the way out as early as the end of this year. Once that happens (and Singleton is certain it will), MediaNews will instantly begin buying TV and radio stations in markets where it already has newspapers, first and foremost in Denver; by this time next year, Denver Post Radio could be on the air. Singleton says this shift in policy will allow him to accomplish even more than he has thus far. Much more.
"To me, it's not just news coverage," he maintains as Good Friday ticks away, inching ever closer to Easter and the day the Savior will rise again. "It's making something happen that will make the community a better place. The Denver Post played a major role in the Pepsi Center happening, a major role in getting the airport built, a major role in getting the new Mile High built. And that's what I want to do. I want us to be an advocate for things that are good, and I think most of our newspapers do that. And I like that. I want to do more than just sit on the sidelines covering meetings. I want to take an active role. I want to make a difference."
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