The Evolution of Dean Singleton
(CJR, March/April 2003)
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Last June, a leading American newspaper publisher journeyed to Moscow, where, in a gilded conference room deep in the Kremlin, he addressed an audience that included presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin. The occasion was a White House- and Kremlin-sponsored summit of media executives, who will jointly endeavor to remake the Russian media along free-market lines. "A free, independent media is the backbone of democracy," the publisher proclaimed to his guests. "But media cannot be independent without economic viability. And that viability must come without government participation." The publisher was quick to dispense advice on journalism ethics. What happens, he was asked during his visit, if a wealthy advertiser insists that a story be killed? "Listen to me," he intoned, "Never, never, never do we let an advertiser influence our independent press!"
Those sonorous words did not emanate from Donald Graham or Arthur Sulzberger Jr., but from William Dean Singleton, one of the most controversial figures in the newspaper world. The New York Times noted his reputation as "the industry's leading skinflint." James Squires, a former editor of the Chicago Tribune, described him as "a rare bird indeed," a "bone-picker publisher . . . who can wring blood from a turnip." Some newspaper veterans view the fifty-one-year-old Singleton as a latter-day Frank Munsey, who buried four New York dailies in the early part of the last century and whom A.J. Liebling called "a mass murderer of newspapers."
Singleton is the CEO of the privately held MediaNews Group, the seventh-largest newspaper company in the U.S., with forty-eight dailies (and 121 nondailies) in eleven states. The best-known papers in MediaNews are The Denver Post, the Los Angeles Daily News, and The Salt Lake Tribune, which Singleton recently acquired with the aid of the Mormon church (see "The News in Mormon Country," Page 42). In constructing his empire, Singleton has included a very sharp knife among his tools, and he has used it. In 1975, after a brief, inglorious run, he closed The Fort Worth Press, the city's second daily, which inspired reporters to hurl beer cans at him. In 1981 he gutted the Trenton Times, prompting its editor to tell CJR, "The public has lost a watchdog and gained a bulletin board." In 1995 he shuttered the Houston Post, throwing well over a thousand people out of work and killing a publication that had served the community since 1885. Nor is Singleton known for graceful entrances. When he purchased The Berkshire Eagle in 1995, reporters were given a sheet of paper describing their job status and new salaries. "People were expected to read the paper and put their initials next to the words ‘accept' or ‘reject' on the spot," Stephen Simurda wrote in CJR. "There were virtually no negotiations. This was day one of the Singleton era."
In 1981 Singleton gutted the Trenton Times, prompting its editor to tell CJR, "The public has lost a watchdog and gained a bulletin board."
Over the last two years, however, Singleton has undergone a remarkable rise within the industry. He was recently elected chairman of the Newspaper Association of America (NAA), which represents the interests of newspaper owners; he was twice elected to the Associated Press Board of Directors; and in 2001 he received Editor & Publisher's "Publisher of the Year" award, largely on the strength of his work with The Denver Post. Singleton has even begun to speak out against newspaper austerity measures. "Newsroom cost cuts have gone far enough — perhaps too far," he said in a recent speech. "We damaged our franchises in many cases, while Wall Street cheered."
Singleton's supporters insist that he has been treated unfairly over the years. "If journalism had an award like a medal of honor, Dean should get it," says David Burgin, who worked for Singleton for twenty-five years off and on, editing his papers in Dallas, Houston, and Oakland. "He has saved newspapers, he has saved jobs, he's made money, he's made papers viable. He's killed a few, but he's tried. The garbage he's taken, the crap he's taken, all comes from newsroom types. A lot of them ought to turn around and apologize."
Who is the real Dean Singleton? Is he a mass murderer of newspapers, or is he a man whose hardheaded pragmatism has enabled him, in a difficult period for the industry, to preserve many more newspaper jobs than he has eliminated? "Dean wanted to be the most profitable newspaper publisher there ever was — until he realized that the measurement of a good newspaper publisher isn't his profitability but his journalism," says the longtime Singleton-watcher David M. Cole, editor and publisher of NewsInc., an industry newsletter. "So now all of a sudden Dean has gotten the journalism bug."
1. The Newspaper Surgeon
On a cold January night, I meet Singleton in the lobby of the posh Empire Hotel in midtown Manhattan. On the way to the airport, he checks in with his office. There are messages from the mayor of Salt Lake City and the governor of Colorado, both of whom are eager to speak with him. And there is a message from The Denver Post's editorial page editor, Sue O'Brien, seeking guidance on an editorial about President Bush's intervention in the University of Michigan affirmative-action case. (Singleton holds the title of publisher of The Denver Post, and keeps a close watch on editorials.) "I think affirmative action is critical," he tells her from the back of the car. "But there is a place to draw the line. I can go either way on this particular issue. I love my friend" — he's referring to Bush — "but I don't have to support him all the time."
The car arrives at the airport. Walking toward his private jet, a sleek Israeli-made Westwind II, Singleton is slightly unsteady on his feet. One morning in 1986, he woke up with numbness in his legs, and was soon diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. He remains extraordinarily active, but he says that each year his legs get progressively weaker, and he has confided to friends that on certain mornings he has trouble getting out of bed.
The plane's interior is cramped and confined, but Singleton is immediately at home. Within seconds, the pilot brings him a glass of Chardonnay. Singleton is wearing gray slacks, a light blue shirt (with his initials — "WDS" — embroidered on the pocket) and a bright red tie. His trousers are held up by red and blue suspenders. He has piercing blue eyes, and a laconic Texas drawl.
The most peculiar thing about Singleton's career is the fact that he never had the money to buy first-rank dailies and he could never afford to start new papers, even if he had wanted to. His method has been to pick up ailing ones — which, in some cases, he then buried. I asked him whether he's killing newspapers or saving them.
"How would you ask that question to a heart surgeon?" he replies. "It's pretty difficult to go blame a heart surgeon for the patients he loses on the table and not give him credit for the scores and scores that he saves." Singleton pauses. "I took on a lot of patients who looked pretty certain they were gonna die, but I tried very hard to save them. And we saved most of them. But we had a few that, despite everything we did, we couldn't save. And once the heart stopped beating, it was silly to keep 'em on life support."
2. Up From Texas
Dean Singleton's extraordinary business savvy has made him a full-fledged member of the American elite. He earns more than a million dollars a year; he cavorts with presidents and senators; he is a leading member of Denver society. His primary residence, where he lives with his wife, Adrienne, and three children, is a stunning mansion in Denver's wealthiest neighborhood, a mansion that contains eleven bathrooms and an elevator, since he has difficulty climbing stairs. Singleton also owns four cattle ranches in Colorado, along with a home on Cape Cod where, during the summer months, he goes sailing with the musician James Taylor.
Unlike some of his peers in the NAA, however, Singleton was not born to wealth; he did not inherit his newspapers. A few weeks ago, on a trip through Texas, Singleton took me to his hometown, Graham, which sits ninety miles west of Fort Worth, and which is surrounded by oil fields and ranchland in every direction. It's a superconservative, superreligious place, mostly white, with more than fifty churches serving a population of nine thousand. Singleton will be buried here, alongside his parents, in a small cemetery on the outskirts of town.
For much of his youth, he lived in a ramshackle four-room house on Pecan Street, in a grim section of Graham. The house is still there — an extremely modest place, five hundred square feet, with chickens and roosters galloping in the backyard. It has a bathroom now, but when Singleton lived here the toilet was outside. The day we arrive, the house has a terrible stench: it is being fumigated for rats and mice. Singleton doesn't mind; he lurches through the living room, his face a mask of joy and wonder. Forty years have passed since he's been inside.
Singleton's father toiled as a day laborer in the oil fields — a "roustabout" in Texas lingo — but frequently there was no work, so he came home early. "We didn't have anything," Singleton says. At night he would lie in bed with a transistor radio, and, as a result of clear-channel signals, would pick up stations from New York and Oklahoma City, which instilled in him a sense of the larger world. At the age of six, he would walk a few blocks to the four-thousand-circulation Graham Leader and watch the papers roll off the presses; sometimes the pressmen bought him ice cream. By age eighteen, he had been a sportswriter for both the Leader and its crosstown competitor, the News. (Many years later, in 1986, Singleton purchased the Graham Leader, and he takes an active interest in its affairs.)
After a series of small-town newspaper jobs in Texas, Singleton landed at the Dallas Morning News in 1970, and worked in the newsroom at night while attending the University of Texas at Arlington by day. But he already knew that he wanted his own newspapers, so he quit school and moved to a small town in the Texas Panhandle, Clarendon, where he bought a tiny weekly. He never finished college, and has no degree. "He's not well read," says David Burgin, who, over the years, was fired and rehired on several occasions by Singleton, and who knows him as well as anyone. "He doesn't sit down with a new book three times a week. He doesn't spend his time in the movies or the theater. He doesn't get lost in the opera or the arts. He's not particularly well educated. But he has an instinctiveness about people and business."
By 1975 Singleton was the owner of eight small weeklies in West Texas, but he was "getting itchy." So he set his sights on The Fort Worth Press, which Scripps Howard wanted to unload. Singleton, with borrowed money, rolled into Fort Worth with a new Lincoln Continental, and tried to revive the paper. "I don't think," he wrote in a memo to the staff, "it is too much to ask for five or more stories out of each reporter each day." But reporters were expected to do more than write; they had to shop, too. As Singleton wrote in another memo:
On page 5 of today's Press, you will find an ad from Mitchell's Department Store . . . Mitchell's is comparing our results with the morning Star-Telegram's . . . If we make a good showing we will have a regular schedule of advertising from Mitchell's. If they don't receive many coupons, we likely won't get their advertising. In a sense, YOUR JOBS DEPEND ON THE NUMBER OF COUPONS MITCHELL'S GETS FROM THIS ADVERTISEMENT. Please get your wives to look at this ad, decide what items you can use from this ad and TAKE THE COUPONS to a nearby Mitchell's store . . . . I'll see you at Mitchell's today!!!
The newspaper folded after eighty-eight days. "It was a total disaster," says Singleton. "I knew nothing about the business of newspapering." He lost a million dollars in the demise of The Fort Worth Press, and he had to sell his weeklies to pay his debts. The experience put him in the hospital for depression and exhaustion. "In twelve weeks it closed, and he lost his ass," says David Burgin. "Poor Dean kicked around and couldn't find anything. And he was only twenty-four years old."
3. The Years With Allbritton
In August 1976 Singleton found himself in the executive dining room of The Washington Star, face to face with the Star's owner, Joe L. Allbritton, whose background bore some resemblance to Singleton's. Born in D'Lo, Mississippi, during the Great Depression, Allbritton spent his early years in Texas, acquired banks, real estate, and even funeral homes — some Star reporters called him "the little mortician" — and purchased Washington's second newspaper in 1974. In 1978 he sold the Star to Time Inc., while retaining his television properties; today he owns nine ABC affiliates — he renamed his Washington station, WJLA, to match his own initials — and is believed to be worth as much as a billion dollars.
Over lunch, Singleton informed Allbritton of his plan to buy a small daily in Westfield, Massachusetts, The Westfield Evening News. Might he be interested in putting up the money for it? Allbritton, as Singleton tells the story, was not interested. Singleton says, "Joe had decided I was too young, and he didn't really know if he wanted this little paper anyway." Allbritton said goodbye and good luck. "I got up," Singleton recalls, "and pushed my coat back, and he saw I had suspenders. I was walking out the door and he said, ‘Young man! Young man! Will you come back here?' He said, ‘Any twenty-five-year-old who wears suspenders has got to be conservative. You go up there and buy the newspaper and I'll wire 'em the money.' "
In short order, Allbritton purchased a number of papers for Singleton to run, mostly in New Jersey. The papers were floundering, and had to be, to use a favorite phrase of Singleton's, "turned around." It was Singleton's view that cost-cutting — combined with a relentless emphasis on local news — was the way to proceed; his editors didn't always agree. In 1976, when Singleton moved to Westfield to publish the Evening News, he asked David Burgin, then editing Allbritton's paper in Paterson, to come to Massachusetts as the temporary editor. Burgin was less than thrilled with the assignment, for he was on a downward trajectory within Allbritton's media empire. "Jesus," he recalls, "just a year ago I was working at The Washington Star, trying to bring down the president, and look at me now!"
Burgin knew that some readers would be interested in the Camp David peace talks then under way between Jimmy Carter, Menachen Begin, and Anwar Sadat. On the day they reached the accord, Burgin, laying out the front page, made Camp David the top story. Singleton came in and peered over his shoulder. "Damn it!" Singleton shouted in his thick drawl, "this is a local paper! We don't sell no fucking papers in Cairo! Get that thing off there, right now!" "Get your sorry ass out of here!" Burgin replied, as he recalls it. "I'm the editor of this newspaper!" Singleton fired him on the spot, but Burgin stuck around to close the evening edition.
At the time, Burgin was staying with Singleton at a nearby house. Still smoldering, Burgin drove there later and saw Singleton's car in the driveway. Burgin heard a splash. "There was a pool, and there's Dean about chest deep in the shallow end. He looks at me for about thirty seconds."
"I told you you're fired!" Singleton roared.
"Sitting beside the pool," says Burgin, "was a contraption, a cage. Inside there's a strange looking bulb, a blue light. It was a bug zapper. It's plugged in by the pool. I looked at that bug zapper and I looked at Dean. I looked at the bug zapper and I looked back at Dean. After about three of those he said, ‘No, no, no!'
"He thinks I'm going to kick it in the pool and he'll be a slice of bacon floating on the top of the pool. He says, ‘That would be murder!' I said, ‘who's gonna know, asshole?' He took about point eight seconds to get out of the pool." Burgin was back at work the next day.
4. Trenton Takeover
Working for Allbritton could be stressful. In 1981 Singleton found himself enmeshed in a labor dispute at The Paterson News, where the unionized typographers and drivers were restive. In the course of the strike, the workers were swiftly vanquished. "We were losing money, and had to fix it, so we took on the unions and threw 'em out," Singleton recalls. The strike got ugly, and for six months Singleton lived in a spare room inside the newspaper. "I told them if they walked out that I'd never let them back," he says. "They walked out and they never came back." Asked if he has any regrets, Singleton grins. "No. When they left, we started making money."
In the late 1970s, much of the industry was watching the heated newspaper war in New Jersey between the Trenton Times — owned by the Washington Post Company — and a tabloid competitor, The Trentonian. In the mid-1970s, Katharine Graham had decided that she wanted to transform the Times into a first-rate newspaper, and sent some top editors to Trenton to remake it. But Trenton residents didn't necessarily want a smaller version of The Washington Post; many of them preferred the localized news of The Trentonian, which stuffed its pages with cheerful photographs of local residents. Big profits at the Times never materialized, and Kay Graham eventually came to see the acquisition as her "Vietnam."
In recent discussions with CJR, Singleton revealed that Kay Graham had asked him to take over the Trenton Times and stem the losses. Singleton had become friendly with Donald Graham in 1977, and when Allbritton asked Singleton to run the beleaguered Star for a year — a year in which the paper turned an operating profit — the Grahams had been impressed. "Kay Graham in 1980 offered me the job to come run it," Singleton says of the Trenton Times. "She offered me the publisher's job and twenty percent of the stock" in a new company that would also buy other newspapers.
But Singleton says he felt enormous loyalty to Allbritton, and a certain reluctance to go work for his primary competitor — Kay Graham. "Joe picked me up when I was down. I had just lost my ass in Fort Worth, and Joe gave me my second chance." Singleton turned down the offer.
He claims he then got a call from Kay Graham, who said: "If you won't go and run it for me, buy the thing." So he and Allbritton did. "The Washington Post basically gave it to us," Singleton says today. Two days after the purchase, Singleton fired sixty Trenton Times staff members. In the subsequent months, as reporters fled, many observers insisted that a great newspaper was being dismantled. In one notorious instance, a cub reporter was fired for adding a handful of relevant details to a press release about a department store closing. (He had been instructed to run the press release word for word.) The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that, in at least one instance, the Trenton Times had published a news story in exchange for an advertisement.
In 1986 Allbritton sold the paper to Newhouse for a rumored $62 million. Singleton notes with satisfaction and defiance, "we saved the Trenton Times and made it dominant."
5. The Big Leagues
Eventually, Singleton grew weary of working for Allbritton — especially since Allbritton declined to make him a partner. "Joe Allbritton never has partners," Singleton grumbled to The New York Times in 1987. So Singleton looked elsewhere for opportunities. In the late 1970s, he became friendly with one of his creditors — Richard Scudder, chairman of the Garden State Paper Company, New Jersey's only manufacturer of newsprint. (In fact, Scudder himself invented the technology behind recycled newsprint.) In 1983 Singleton informed Allbritton he was launching a newspaper company, later to be called MediaNews, with Scudder.
Scudder knew the business. His grandfather founded The Newark News, New Jersey's much-admired newspaper of record. In 1970 Scudder sold the ailing paper to Media General, which soon closed it. In 1972 Richard Reeves published in cjr an article entitled, "Newark's Fallen Giant: Euthanasia or Murder?," wherein he said that the News had been "mismanaged, or unmanaged, on a mind-boggling scale by the third generation of the Scudder family." Richard Scudder sued Reeves and CJR; the case was settled back in 1977, but the wounds inflicted by the article are still fresh. In a recent interview on the twentieth floor of MediaNews headquarters in Denver, Scudder, who remains sprightly at the age of 89, erupted when Richard Reeves is mentioned. "Shoot the bastard!" he exclaimed.
Together, Singleton and Scudder purchased newspapers in Massachusetts, Ohio, New Jersey, and California. Their first metro acquisition — from Times Mirror — was the Dallas Times Herald, the city's number two daily. The Times Herald was far from healthy: the year Singleton bought it, it lost $9 million. Times Mirror was relieved to unburden itself of the paper; it had never found a way to make the Times Herald work. For their part, reporters — recalling the evisceration of the Trenton Times — responded to the news of the sale with trepidation. The Boston Globe reported in 1987 that Singleton's arrival in Dallas "caused near pandemonium in the newsroom."
The Times Herald was Singleton's first purchase of a major newspaper, and it was something of a milestone for him — his arrival in the big leagues. For Dean Singleton, being a cost-conscious boy publisher was never easy. He had trouble socializing with reporters and editors, some of whom made fun of him behind his back, ridiculing his noticeable lisp. After the press conference announcing the purchase of the Times Herald, David Burgin, who was to edit the paper, walked out to get his car, and found Singleton alone by the loading docks.
"He was standing there, just looking." Burgin asked him if he was okay. "Yeah," Singleton replied. "I just spent $120 million dollars, and I never spent $120 million dollars before." Burgin remembers, "He turned around and there were tears coming down his eyes. He was lost. He'd just done this incredible thing. He didn't have anywhere to go. He didn't have anybody to have dinner with. What are you going to do, go back to the hotel room and watch TV after spending $120 million dollars? He needed attention. I gave it to him." They drank twelve-dollar shots of brandy at a fine hotel bar.
But the purchase turned out to be a mistake. The Times Herald, Singleton says, "was a blue-collar paper in a white-collar market" with a weak Sunday edition. And it came out in the afternoon, while the heavyweight establishment News ruled the morning. On top of this, the Texas economy was in terrible shape. "You could just see the trend line," he says today, "and it wasn't good. I bought it out of emotion. It's 120 miles from where I was born, a paper I grew up admiring and respecting." After eighteen months, he sold the Times Herald to an associate, who closed it. Singleton still walked away with $15 million from the sale.
In September 1987, he stunned the newspaper world by announcing two major acquisitions — the Houston Post and The Denver Post. Houston was the reverse of Dallas, Singleton says, "a white-collar paper in a blue-collar market," but the Sunday edition was similarly weak.
Eight years later, in 1995, Singleton sold the assets of the Houston Post to its main competitor, Hearst, publisher of the dominant Houston Chronicle, for $120 million. The Houston Post was a corpse. Employees of the Post were enraged, and have remained so ever since; today they refer to him as "Stinky Singleton." In a scorching letter published in CJR, the former assistant editorial page editor, Charles Reinken, noted that for 111 years, the Post "printed the news, got a few rascals thrown out, earned a Pulitzer along the way, conceded nothing to the competition, and showed great heart . . . . Singleton killed it without even the decency of a farewell edition — a death without a funeral."
Writing in the Houston Press, an alternative weekly, Tim Fleck and Jim Simmon revealed in 1995 that Singleton had secretly reached an agreement with Hearst eight months before the Post was shuttered, but went through the motions of publicly seeking a buyer to gain the nod of the Justice Department, which might have objected on antitrust grounds. Today, Singleton doesn't dispute the Houston Press account. But he maintains that he offered the Post to forty-eight buyers, and that one of them, the Belo Corporation, offered $70 million, $50 million less than Hearst, but the deal fell through.
Today, Singleton admits that buying the Houston Post was another mistake, but he claims he prolonged the newspaper's life. "It would have died right away," in 1987, if he hadn't bought it, he says. "I gave it seven years it wouldn't have had." Certainly, the Post's editorial side had been weakened by its previous owners, and with or without Singleton, it had enormous woes.
In any case, the Post's demise left a gaping hole in Houston journalism. Tim Fleck explains that the city used to have a series of pressrooms in downtown Houston — one in city hall, one in the federal building, one at the police station. "When the Post and the Chronicle were competing," he says, "those newsrooms were just incredible hubs of activity," which drew in TV crews as well. The death of the Post has "really put the damper on intensive media coverage of governmental affairs in town."
6. California Conquest
From the start, MediaNews focused much of its energy on California. In 1985 Singleton purchased a group of dailies in the fast-growing suburbs around San Francisco, and they have nearly doubled in circulation since then. In 1992 Singleton bought the Oakland Tribune, which was losing about $1 million a month. The paper had been a beacon for African-American journalists as the only major paper with a black owner (the late Robert Maynard). But Singleton didn't buy it for sentimental reasons; he controlled the market in Alameda County, of which Oakland is the county and cultural seat. If the Oakland Tribune had folded, Singleton explains, "The San Francisco Chronicle would have picked up most of the circulation, and we would have invited a new competitor into our market. We couldn't let that happen." (By reducing the staff from 630 to 280, Singleton eventually made the Oakland Tribune profitable.)
For years his Northern California papers pooled their resources — they even had a centralized copy-editing center for all the publications. Lately, they have pulled back from that strategy, giving more autonomy to the individual papers, but from an advertising perspective, this "clustering" has paid off handsomely. Individually, his papers could not attract national and large department store advertising. Together they have a circulation of 380,000, which makes them a viable option for larger advertisers.
In the mid-1990s, Singleton made a major push into Southern California as well, again following the "clustering" strategy, buying half a dozen papers, most notably the Los Angeles Daily News. These acquisitions gave Singleton control over a huge swath of suburban Los Angeles. He was eager to keep expanding, and in 1997 he made an offer for the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, located in a fast-growing suburban zone. When the owners, the Stephens Media Group, declined his request, Singleton came back with a proposal that revealed the full range of his business acumen. Could MediaNews and Stephens, he suggested, combine their papers in a partnership, and divide the profits accordingly? Stephens found the offer attractive (largely for tax reasons) and agreed to contribute twelve dailies to the consortium. Thus was born the California Newspaper Partnership, which also includes Gannett, which added two papers. MediaNews currently controls 55 percent of CNP.
Nothing is more illustrative of Singleton's business acumen than his unpublicized deal with Times Mirror, the owner of the Los Angeles Times, concerning the Los Angeles Daily News. In 1997 the Daily News went up for sale, and Singleton was eager to purchase it. Still, he had some concerns: "We were a little reluctant to get into a head-to-head battle with Times Mirror. They were very good friends." For antitrust reasons, Times Mirror could not purchase the Daily News, and it was concerned about who might; its executives didn't want a fierce competitor — like Rupert Murdoch — in their core market. A creative solution was found: Times Mirror lent Singleton $50 million of the $130 million-dollar purchase price to buy the Daily News. Moreover, Singleton and Times Mirror forged a plan to sell pre-print advertising together. "I don't think Dean has competitors," says David Cole, of NewsInc. "Dean has business partners who he hasn't done business with yet."
All this was too much for the Justice Department, which, in 1998, launched a yearlong investigation. In the end, Justice gave its approval to the advertising deal, but pushed to end the possibility that the Daily News could fall into Times Mirror's hands. But Singleton's lawyers convinced the feds to grant the Tribune Company (which bought Times Mirror) a twelve-year option to buy the Daily News, since it would require approval from Justice and probably won't ever take place.
Still, all is not well in Singleton's California empire. The economy remains weak, and many of his papers are plagued by high turnover, due to the low salaries paid to reporters and editors.
Sean Holstege, a reporter and union officer at The Oakland Tribune, claims that Singleton's Northern California papers average a 30 percent turnover rate. Many reporters earn as little as $26,000. "I know employees who skip meals," says Holstege. "I know employees who have slept in cars until they found affordable housing. I know one person who got pregnant and was weeping when she found out. She had no idea how she would pay for it."
Singleton offers a blunt defense of his wage scale. "We pay the salaries that a newspaper that size pays around the country," he declares. "That's the economic model that works for that size newspaper." Staffers who disagree, he says, should follow another career path — that of the young Dean Singleton: "I was at the same place they were. I started on small papers and went up the ladder as I got experience." He doesn't mince words: "You gotta climb the ladder. That's what the business has always been about. That's what it's always gonna be about. You gotta climb the ladder and pay your dues."
Meanwhile, Singleton's California empire continues to expand. In January MediaNews purchased one of the last independent papers in the northern part of the state, the Paradise Post in Butte County. On January 20, I sat in on MediaNews's weekly publishers' meeting, where the Paradise Post deal was under discussion. "Is there a union there?" inquired one of Singleton's lieutenants. "No," replied another. "Why do you think they call it Paradise?"
7. Victory In Denver
For Singleton, paradise — or at least a major-league success — is The Denver Post, the second paper he bought from Times Mirror. This time the surgery worked, and his accomplishment is widely recognized as a competitive triumph. As was the case in Dallas, Times Mirror unloaded the ailing Post on him at a very attractive price — $25 million in cash, plus $70 million in long-term notes. Times Mirror also gave Singleton forty-five acres near downtown Denver. "Denver was a nice acquisition," Singleton says with a grin. During the last year of Times Mirror ownership, the Post lost $15 million, but the paper had certain things going for it, mainly a young, educated readership and an expanding market.
Singleton found himself in the middle of the country's last great newspaper war, a war in which the Post had been battling the Rocky Mountain News for more than a century, a war that had been injurious to both papers. On the business side, Singleton moved to strengthen newspaper delivery and billing, both of which had been faulty under Times Mirror ownership. Editorially, the Post decreased its crime coverage and stepped up its life-style and cultural coverage. "I am not dumbing down the paper," Dennis Britton, the editor at the time, told The New York Times in 1996. "I am crime-ing it down and Pollyanna-ing it up, because I am looking for a positive spin on things."
The Rocky continued to bleed money. In 1997 Scripps, which owned the Rocky, panicked and began to offer the paper for a penny a day, less than $4 for the year; that gave the Rocky a circulation lead but ultimately cost Scripps $25 million. The Rocky, in 2000, finally gave up and asked to enter into a joint operating agreement with the Post. As part of the deal, Scripps paid MediaNews $60 million.
"We outmaneuvered them on the business side," says Singleton. "We kicked butt on advertising and circulation. We were much more efficient. They blew a lot of money. We didn't blow any money. We spent every nickel where it needed to be spent." In the decade leading up to the JOA, the Rocky Mountain News hemorrhaged $124 million, while the Post earned $200 million. Why didn't Singleton simply wait for the Rocky to die, and then dominate the whole market?
To begin with, he says, he had heard that one of Colorado's wealthiest citizens was interested in the paper, and he was afraid of a new infusion of cash and a much longer newspaper war. "I have multiple sclerosis," he says. "I've beat the system for seventeen years, but I don't know that I'll always beat the system. I don't know at what point in time it will finally launch that big attack and throw me in the wheelchair or kill me. And I didn't want to fight the battle for five more years."
He also wanted to accomplish something journalistically. "The Post was a pretty darn good newspaper before the JOA. But I wouldn't call it one of the five best in the country," he says. "I want to give this market a world-class newspaper, and I couldn't afford to do it with the battle going on."
Soon after the purchase, Singleton moved his headquarters and his home to Denver. He went through several publishers before assuming the title himself. Last year, Singleton added the final piece, a new editor, Greg Moore, from The Boston Globe. In his seven months on the job, Moore has moved, with Singleton's backing, to strengthen the paper. There is much work to be done; today most of the main section consists of wire copy. Moore hired top editors from the Chicago Tribune, Newsday, and The Dallas Morning News; he is in the process of opening the paper's first foreign bureau — in the Middle East — and hopes to open a second one in Latin America in the near future. The Post's newsroom currently has 230 employees, but Moore talks of adding seventy to a hundred more. Diversity is a high priority, "and I think I have a full partner in Dean in that," Moore says.
A striking feature of the JOA in Denver is the extent to which the News also benefits from the arrangement. Profits are divided fifty-fifty, even though the Post is the stronger paper and has the Sunday edition. The arrangement is not very Singletonian, so I ask him why he structured the deal that way. He emits a low groan. "Can you squeeze a few million a year out by doing it another way? Perhaps." Says the man Editor & Publisher once labeled "lean Dean": "You know, I'm not really into squeezing a few more million out. I'm not a money guy." The Post's editorial page editor, Sue O'Brien, offers another explanation. "He wants to be remembered for the excellence of the Post, but he also doesn't want to be remembered as the scrooge who put the Rocky to death."
Some editors who work at Singleton's smaller papers give him credit for improving their publications; they insist his reputation as an enemy of newspapers is largely mythological. Kevin Keane edits The Lowell Sun, purchased by MediaNews in 1997. Before that, he worked at another Singleton paper, the Lebanon Daily News, in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. Keane notes that Singleton bought the Lebanon paper from Thomson, which had neglected it. "When it rained, the mainframe got wet and the system went down for a day or two," he says. "The computer system itself hadn't been updated for a decade. Thomson didn't seem to care.
"Dean brought in a new publisher and let him hire new people to lead the departments. In the course of two years, he sank about $1 million into plant upgrades, including a new front-end system and roof. As a result, the paper turned itself around."
Among the papers in Singleton's empire is The Berkshire Eagle, which has a reputation as one of the nation's finest small dailies. When Singleton bought the paper in 1995, it was nearly bankrupt. After seven years of ownership, Eagle veterans give him a mixed report card. Grier Horner, who worked at the paper for thirty years, notes that Singleton broke the union, fired staff members, and reduced salaries by as much as 30 percent; his own salary was cut by $9,000 a year. Still, "Singleton has been respectful of the paper," says Horner. "He hasn't meddled with the newsroom. He's given the newsroom autonomy." Concludes Horner: "He was not the worst thing that could have happened to The Berkshire Eagle."
8. Washington Insider
These days, as his newspaper empire continues to expand, Singleton's attention is focused on a different medium — television. Since he joined the NAA's board in 1993, he has been actively working to overturn the FCC's restrictions on cross-ownership — an issue that has moved to the forefront in recent months, as the FCC considers lifting the rule that prevents newspapers from purchasing TV stations in their own markets (see "Power Shift," Page 26).
On this matter, Singleton exudes the confidence of a well-informed insider, which he very much is. The NAA, which includes almost all of the nation's leading newspaper publishers, has made it clear that it wants the free market to prevail on cross-ownership, and Singleton, as NAA president, is pushing hard on the issue. Over the last decade, he has personally discussed the cross-ownership rule with Vice President Al Gore and a long list of senators, including Bob Dole. He has also taken it up with his "good friend," George W. Bush. "I've discussed it with him on numerous occasions," says Singleton. "I've discussed it with his staff. I know the people at the FCC on a first-name basis now."
Singleton confidently predicts that the FCC will overturn the restrictions by the middle of 2003. If that happens, he will move quickly to purchase TV stations in the markets where he already has newspapers.
Will his profits skyrocket under a system in which he can soak up advertising dollars for both print and television?
"There's a chance we'll gain financially," he admits. "But the bigger picture is the fact that we'll be able to strengthen newspapers and keep them strong. We'll be able to spend more money to cover news."
Singleton insists he's not "a money guy"; he insists that good journalism always comes first; and yet one gets the sense that he is reading from a script. As we flew from Texas to Denver on his private jet, Singleton discussed his work with the Russian media, and noted that MediaNews and Gannett have together pledged to raise $50 million in venture capital for the Russian press; the money will serve as ownership investment. Singleton fervently believes that a "free press" — by which he means a privatized press — can bring "democracy" to Russia; and that anyone who enlists in that venture will be making an imperishable contribution to freedom in the former Soviet Union. "Russia has the opportunity to aim missiles at us," he intones. "If we don't help their democracy work, those missiles will get aimed at us again. I don't want my kids to have nuclear drills, like I did."
A few minutes later, as the jet begins its descent into Denver, Singleton can't resist adding: "Somebody's gonna make a ton of money on the media in Russia. It's in its infancy. It is gonna be a major, major opportunity, from a capital standpoint." It's clear that he plans to take full advantage of that opportunity. It's a powerful reminder that Singleton's long journey, from the dilapidated backstreets of Graham to the gilded corridors of power, has entailed evolution and continuity alike — but mostly continuity. "If he's got one eye on his legacy," says David Burgin, "he's still got the other eye on the cash register."