Singleton scorned, praised

MediaNews deal stirs debate over chief executive's commitment to quality journalism

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April 28, 2006|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- In 1986, 34-year-old media upstart Dean Singleton hit the major leagues, buying the prize-winning but ailing Dallas Times Herald in his home state of Texas.

Dave Burgin, who was to become editor, recalls walking down the back stairs of the newspaper to his car after the news conference and finding Singleton in the alley at a loading dock.

"There stood Dean looking up from the alley into the dock, his glasses were off and he was wiping a tear from his eyes. He was shaken by what he had done, the magnitude of it. He said, `I just spent $120 million, and I don't know where to go.'"

Burgin, a friend, took Singleton to a hotel where he ordered a bottle of the finest brandy.

"Dean walked away and made me pay it," Burgin said with a chuckle. "One of Singleton's favorite sayings is, `I may be stingy, but I'm solvent.'"

The Dallas Times Herald, of course, wasn't. Singleton sold it and it folded in 1991.

Singleton's famous attention to journalism's bottom line, cast in stone during his Texas newspaper years, has provoked debate and wrath and admiration for decades. The announcement Wednesday of a proposed $1 billion deal involving his MediaNews Group and Hearst Corp. to eventually add the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the San Jose Mercury News and two other California newspapers to the MediaNews portfolio - fallout from the deal for the Knight Ridder newspaper chain to be sold to McClatchy Co. - ensures that the great debate over his newsroom impact will live on.

Supporters portray Singleton, chief executive officer of the Denver-based MediaNews newspaper chain, one of the country's largest newspaper companies, as a shrewd businessman committed to quality journalism. He truly loves newspapering, said his old friend Burgin, but the world of high journalism has never truly accepted him.

Critics portray him as a serial cost-cutter who consistently puts business above quality journalism, grinding newsrooms to turn a tidy profit for MediaNews.

Singleton declined repeated requests for an interview for this article.

Singleton's more recent newspaper acquisition record offers both sides plenty of ammunition.

Reporters and editors at newspapers MediaNews has acquired in the last 10 years - they run the gamut from big to small, union to non-union, in joint operating agreements with other newspapers or standing alone, profitable and not - offer a widely mixed picture of newsroom life under Singleton.

Singleton, 54 and not slowed by his multiple sclerosis, appears hands-off with larger newspapers making money, but tough on those that aren't.

Singleton's last major metro purchase was in August, when he entered the cutthroat Detroit market with a bargain purchase of the Detroit News for $25 million.

Gauging Singleton's influence in Detroit is difficult because Singleton's control is limited. The paper, with a weekday circulation of about 216,711, operates under a profitable joint operating agreement with rival Detroit Free Press, circulation 341,248. Gannett Co. Inc., the nation's largest newspaper company, controls the partnership running both papers.

"I read all those horror stories and thought `Oh my God,'" said Detroit News managing editor Sue Burzynski. "It's been nothing like that in our case."

Singleton gets similar kudos at the Salt Lake Tribune, a 130,615-circulation paper also in a joint operating agreement that MediaNews bought in 2001. Singleton, the direct publisher of the non-union newspaper, made no changes to staffing or wages, said editor Nancy Conway.

"Dean is committed to good journalism. He's committed to public service," Conway said, ticking off a list of awards her newspaper has won.

Singleton also has fans at the Denver Post. Singleton's flagship newspaper, the Post won a Pulitzer in 1999 for its coverage of the Columbine High School shootings. It has largely won its long-running war with the Rocky Mountain News, with which it now operates under a JOA. Trade magazine Editor & Publisher named Singleton publisher of the year in 2001 for his accomplishments there.

You don't have to reach far back into MediaNews history, however, to find the knife.

Singleton slashed the staff of at least two financially troubled newspapers he bought in the last 10 years. In both cases, MediaNews struck deals in which union contracts were voided and employees - only a fraction of whom were rehired - had to reapply for their jobs at reduced salaries.

To be sure, MediaNews isn't unique in squeezing newsroom resources. Although industry margins remain high, owners across the industry are battling flat ad revenue and declining circulation.

"I don't think it's a Dean Singleton thing," said Matt Wilson, executive editor of the Marin Independent Journal, a San Francisco Bay-area newspaper MediaNews bought in 2000. "I don't know that you can disentangle anything that Dean Singleton has done from what's going on in the rest of the industry."

Burgin agreed.

"He's smart enough to see newspapers are up against their very survival," Burgin said of Singleton. "He's our salvation. Root for him."

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