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Dean Singleton on retiring as MediaNews Group chair, print's decline and the future

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This week, Dean Singleton announced that he would be stepping down as chairman of MediaNews Group, the nation's second-largest newspaper company, and publisher of the Denver Post.

Singleton is loved and hated with equal fervor within the journalism industry, but he's always been the most accessible of moguls. And in a conversation with Westword, he was typically frank about the reasons for his decision, the inevitable decline of print and the mark he's left on newspapering.

As you'll recall, Singleton, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, let it be known he would be passing on the mantle of MediaNews CEO back in January 2011; that position was finally filled by John Paton the following September. But he's held onto the company's chairmanship and acted as the Post's publisher for more than two years since then. And while Singleton will serve as non-executive chairman of the Post going forward, he refers to his latest move as retirement.

Why now?

"I've been thinking about it for quite some time," Singleton says. "It's a variety of factors, most of them personal. I've battled MS for a long, long time, and it's well known that it gets progressively worse over time in terms of mobility. It takes longer to do things, and you have to plan ahead.

"Secondly, I've spent my life building the company and traveling a lot and not spending as much time with my three children as I should have. Now, they're grown, and I'm really learning to have a rewarding, fun relationship with them. I have two grandchildren, too, and personal time is becoming a lot more important to me.

"And third, I've been working full time for and around newspapers since I was fifteen, and there are a lot of things that interest me, and that I want to spend more time doing while I still can. And it just seems hard to do those things when you're tied day-to-day to the newspapers. So our company's annual meeting comes up in December, and if you're going to retire as chairman and leave the board, an appropriate time to do it is by the annual meeting."

In recent years, insiders have suggested that Singleton, once the undisputed king of MediaNews, was being slowly but steadily marginalized. In his view, "I don't think that's correct. Two and a half, almost three years ago, I announced that I was going to step down as CEO, and it took about nine months to come to a decision about who the new CEO would be. After that, in terms of the sixteen-hour days and traveling around the country doing budgets, I stopped doing that. So I haven't been involved in the day-to-day operations on the business side for more than two years. But I've still been in every day, and if anything, I've gotten more involved in the Denver Post, because I was here and didn't travel as much, and I'm very interested in all things Colorado."

Loosening his involvement in MediaNews Group was "by design," he stresses. "You can't have two CEOs, and John's the CEO. But I still talk with John regularly on what we're doing, and review results and financial statements and all of that. I just spent a little more time on the Denver Post side of things during that period of time. But that takes up much of every day, and it's hard to really free yourself while you're still there all the time."

When asked about the troubles the traditional newspaper industry is experiencing, Singleton pulls no punches.

Continue for more of our interview with Dean Singleton following his announcement that he'll be retiring as chairman of MediaNews Group. "Print has been in a solid decline both in circulation and advertising for a good seven years," he points out, adding, "the decline continues, and will continue. So the challenge going forth for our business is to build a robust digital business, and that's where all the focus is -- and that's where the focus needs to be. And I think John and his team have done an excellent job of pointing us in the right direction and getting us poised for a very bright future."

At the same time, however, "it's no secret that I'm a print-on-paper guy. I've always loved print on paper. Now, I've also recognized the importance of digital in our future. We recognized it a long time ago: MediaNews Technologies, which began our digital development, was created in Hayward, California in 1994, so we were among the earliest to put real resources in digital. We started early, and I think we've done pretty well in digital -- and I think we do it as well, if not better, than anybody out there. It is the focus of the company, and it must be the focus of the company. I recognize that and believe in it. But it's just not part of the business that gives me the most excitement."

Given all that, has the transition from print to digital, and the disinterest in the physical newspaper that's commonplace among the younger generations, been depressing for him?

"'Depress' would be the wrong word," he replies. "I'm actually excited when I see the audiences the industry is building -- especially young audiences. I spent much of my career worrying about and having angst that we didn't have a young audience -- that our audience was getting older and older. But in the digital world, we are capturing a young audience, and that's very exciting.

"Hey, I've got three kids in their twenties, and they haven't read a newspaper probably in their life. They've grown up in a digital world, so I've seen it right in my own home. I've never seen them sit and devour news in a print newspaper, but they sit with their iPads and devour news. So we've created a younger generation that's really into news. They're just into it in a different way."

Nonetheless, Singleton readily concedes that "the ability to monetize digital delivery and advertising around it is still behind the curve" in comparison to print -- "and I'm 62 and grew up in a print world. I started reading a daily newspaper when I was in the third grade, and I've loved newspapers ever since. The next generation doesn't, and we won't see another generation that depends on print. My generation still does, but you begin to see it tail off at about fifty. Most of the people I spend time with who are my age or a little older or younger still love the print newspaper, but that's changing rapidly. In fact, many of my friends, while they still take the print newspaper, are depending more and more on their iPads and mobile devices, because they're so much quicker. We get news instantly rather than waiting until the next morning."

Going forward, Singleton says, "my sole duties for MediaNews will be as chairman of the Post and to be helpful to Mac Tully," the broadsheet's president and CEO, who will be adding "publisher" to his curriculum vitae. "And I'll work in community things and political things. But I will not have a lot of duties at the Post. It's Mac's newspaper now."

Does he feel emotional about this last admission?

Continue for more of our interview with Dean Singleton following his announcement that he'll be retiring as chairman of MediaNews Group. "I think I've gotten beyond that," Singleton says. "In thinking about this for the last year, I've wondered how it would work and how it would feel, and I had the ups and downs before I made the final decision to do it. And I'm very proud of the Post -- proud of what we've done over the last 26 years.

"I think the Post has one of the best editors in the country, and one of the best editors I've worked with in my career, in Greg Moore. I'm very proud of the work he and his team do and I'm confident they'll continue to do that. And I've known Mac Tully for twenty years. I hired him from the Kansas City Star to run San Jose [he's referring to that city's Mercury News] almost six years ago, and I'm very comfortable with him. He's published some very good newspapers, and his father was a publisher, so he has the understanding of what a newspaper should be in a community, but with a much better grasp of the new world than I have. It's kind of like turning over a treasured asset to people that grew up with you and you know well. So I'm very comfortable turning over the Denver Post to Mac and Greg."

As for the matter of the legacy he'll be leaving behind, Singleton says, "I have no control over that, so it's silly to even think about it. It will be what it will be."

Even so, he acknowledges that "I'm proud we started with one little newspaper in New Jersey and built it into the second-largest newspaper company in the country. And I'm proud of the great journalism that we've done at many of our newspapers, and during the 26 years at the Denver Post. When we bought the newspaper, we were 128,000 daily circulation behind the Rocky" -- the Rocky Mountain News, of course. "And once we got done cleaning out some of the circulation garbage, it was probably more like 150,000 behind. Everybody left us for dead. Nobody thought we had a chance of catching up."

Nonetheless, he says that with "good blocking and good tackling and a good newspaper, we did catch up, and we passed the Rocky both in circulation and advertising. And then, we reached an accommodation" -- a 2001 joint operating agreement -- "where we could publish together. But as the business changed, there was only room for one of us -- and I'm proud we ended up being the one."

The Rocky shut down in 2009, after nearly 150 years of publication.

Recently, the Post "has won Pulitzers four years in a row," Singleton says. "We're the only newspaper in the country to do that other than the New York Times. So I'm very proud of what we've done at the Post, and the team that's done it is still there. And I think they'll keep on doing it.

"I'll have some involvement in it," he says, "but not so much involvement that I can't go off and do the other things I want to do."

Send your story tips to the author, Michael Roberts.

More from our Media archive circa January 2011: "Dean Singleton interview about stepping down as CEO of MediaNews Group."

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