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More Messages: The Latest from the Dean of Newspapers

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The afternoon of April 26, MediaNews Group head Dean Singleton made official a secret almost as poorly kept as Tony Snow 's appointment as White House press secretary. MediaNews, with financial backing from the Hearst Corporation, had purchased three newspapers based in the California Bay Area -- the San Jose Mercury News, the Contra Costa Times and the Monterey County Herald -- and one in Minnesota -- the St. Paul Pioneer Press -- for $1 billion in cash.

Singleton played coy for as long as possible. During an appearance that formed the basis of an April 26 article in the New York Times, he said, "Never have I seen so many people write so many things they didn't know." (In fact, the rumors turned out to be extremely close to the facts.) He played a similar game throughout an interview for the April 27 Message column. Citing a confidentiality agreement, he declined to discuss the looming deal, which could hardly have been more complicated. (As sketched out in the Associated Press piece about the transaction, the McClatchey Company purchased Knight Ridder, the papers' previous owner, in March. McClatchey then declared its desire to peddle twelve of the Knight Ridder properties to other interested parties -- and MediaNews qualified.) The most Singleton would say on the subject of expansion was that he thought the long-term prospects for newspapers in general were "excellent, and we would like to own more of them."

This latest purchase makes perfect sense for Singleton, who already owns numerous papers in the San Francisco area that are part of the Alameda Newspaper Group. The idea is to create economies of scale, and by adding to his already sizable cluster, he's likely to achieve even greater savings. But folks at the newly acquired papers are understandably edgy about the change at the top, particularly given Singleton's reputation for penny pinching at the ANG papers. In a 2002 Message column, for instance, a union representative for the Oakland Tribune suggested that ANG was a "cash cow" for the Denver Post, which Singleton was building up following the approval of a joint operating agreement with the Rocky Mountain News.

Today, however, there's anxiety on both sides. Singleton's big move came only days after the Post announced a buyout/early retirement plan intended to slice the newsroom staff by 25, or about 8 percent of its total. Some staffers now fear that Singleton will be cutting back on his Denver flagship in order to prop up papers elsewhere, instead of the other way around. Singleton counters that each of his papers must stand on its own, and the trims at the Post are unrelated to other expenditures. But many Post types are having trouble believing this assertion. Indeed, the timing of the purchases has lowered morale that was already sinking due to the buyout proposal and the two Pulitzers won by the Rocky. Although Greg Moore, the Post's editor, characterizes the mood at the paper as "fine," many of his underlings were choose a different, and far less optimistic, descriptor.

Oh yeah: In the fall of 2003, I wrote an item about the Contra Costa Times; former Post staffer Chris Lopez, then the Times's managing editor, had offered reporters a $50 bonus for front-page stories that were less than eight column inches in length. The blurb identified the Times as a MediaNews paper, which it wasn't at the time -- so I apologized for the mistake in the next week's paper. But now I realize that this wasn't actually an error. It was a prediction. -- Michael Roberts

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