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Dean Singleton interview about stepping down as CEO of MediaNews Group

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Dean Singleton is stepping down as CEO of MediaNews Group -- a position he's held for more than a quarter-century. But he's not retiring. He'll serve as MediaNews' executive chairman, as well as publisher for both the Denver Post and the Salt Lake Tribune. Speculation is rife that this move was forced upon him by a New York hedge fund that owns a sizable chunk of the company, but Singleton rejects it. "This was my decision," he says.

According to Singleton, he's been thinking about passing along his chief-exec duties "for quite some time. I've been the CEO of the company since we started 27 years ago. It's become quite a big company" -- the second-largest newspaper company by circulation, as is noted in the Post piece about the move -- "and it requires an enormous amount of travel. My style is to travel to all the newspapers and spend time in the field. And as you know, I have battled multiple sclerosis for a long time and I'm basically wheelchair-bound now -- which has not stopped me from doing the travel I'm accustomed to doing, but it gets harder as time goes by. So I felt it was an appropriate time to name a CEO.

"There's never been a CEO other than me since the founding of the company, but the combination of disabilities and age convinced me that it's time to do that. And at the same time, we see opportunities for expansion, which I have always enjoyed doing. It's what I like to do, and as the company continues to grow and develop, it seemed appropriate that the CEO should be one person and the chairman should be another. We've been discussing that internally with our team for a long time."

Jody Lodovic has been among that team's most important members, serving as MediaNews' president and Singleton's right-hand man for decades. Indeed, most observers saw him as Singleton's logical successor as CEO -- but Lodovic has resigned from his position and the MediaNews board. Singleton declines to comment on the reasons for his departure, but a knowledgeable source suggests that Lodovic left the firm after learning he would not be made CEO.

Three new board directors will take the place of Lodovic and two other departing members, with a couple of the newcomers, Heath Freeman and Bruce Schnelwar, hailing from Alden Global Capitol. Alden is hedge fund that owns a sizable chunk of MediaNews Group as well as pieces of assorted newspaper companies, including Freedom Communications, whose holdings include the Colorado Springs Gazette and the Orange County Register. Rumors have circulated for months about a possible MediaNews-Freedom merger, and while Singleton won't address that prospect directly, he makes it clear that he'll be looking closely at consolidation.

"After our restructuring" -- MediaNews emerged from bankruptcy this past March -- "we have a very good balance sheet for expansion," Singleton maintains. "And expansion, if you do it geographically, lets you consolidate a lot of overhead, which makes the businesses more efficient -- and that gives the core business a lot more value. But it also gives you more critical mass to create new media platforms. In terms of developing new media strategies, interactive and mobile and social media, the size of the platform does matter, and having a larger platform does offer some opportunity."

Would it also add to the possible success of Internet pay walls, by establishing a common system at more properties? Singleton's not so sure about that.

"We're experimenting with pay walls, but there's no certainty pay walls are going to work," he concedes. "The best reason to have a pay wall is that it sends a message to consumers that all information is not free. And I think having sent the message for fifteen years that it is, we need to send a different message -- that all information isn't free. Although you can't have a total pay wall, because we're generating a lot of traffic, and a lot of revenue, for the content we have.

"The opportunity in new media is not really different than print was for the last hundred years. We talk about selling newspapers, but we never really got paid for content. We got paid for the paper and ink it was printed on, but we built large audiences and got paid by the advertisers who wanted to reach that audience. I don't think new media is going to be that much different, and I don't think we'll get a lot of money for that content. We never have and we probably never will. But the audience we're building will generate a lot of revenue, and the more focused and fine-tuned that audience is, the higher rate you can get for that audience. And we're learning to do that."

Nonetheless, Singleton believes "print is still very important. Print generates a lot of audience, print generates a lot of ad revenue, and it generates a lot of circulation revenue. And print sold in combination with new media gets very good results for advertisers. Print will be important for a long time."

Even so, Singleton says perhaps the top characteristic he's looking for in a new CEO is "someone who is not tied or bound to the traditional newspaper model -- someone who is willing to put a more focused interest on our new opportunities. Because the growth of our business going forward will not be print. Print will remain very, very important, but the future of our business will be outside of print, and I think the perfect CEO would be somebody who is not focused on print. And I must admit, as a traditionalist, I probably continue to focus more on print than I might. But I totally respect and understand that the future growth is not in print. Print will be in our future for a long time, but the growth will be generated outside of print."

Once a new CEO is in place, Singleton will be able to devote more of his schedule to a pair of his favorite properties. "I love spending time with the Denver Post and always have -- that and the Salt Lake Tribune, the two newspapers I've been publisher of for a long time. I'm not going to quit traveling, but if I'm not traveling as much, I'll be in the buildings more.

"I walked in a newspaper office when I was fifteen, and I'm soon to turn sixty -- so I haven't been away from a newspaper office in 45 years. Newspapering is my primary love, and the news side is my real passion. Having been a CEO for 27 years at MediaNews and for eight years prior to that for another company that I didn't own, I've been a newspaper CEO for 35 years. And I've been very much a businessman, because that's what you have to do to build a company. I love the business side of newspapering, no question. But my first love is and always has been the news side. And I don't have any intentions of drawing a breath of life outside of newspapering."

Page down to see two documents: a letter Singleton sent to all MediaNews employees and the official press release about the latest developments at the company.

More from our Media archives: "Highlights from the goodbye-to-the-Rocky Mountain News press conference."

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