E&P NAMES SINGLETON PUBLISHER OF THE YEAR

By: Mark Fitzgerald

Controversial MediaNews CEO Earns Respect


Editor & Publisher magazine names its second Publisher of the
Year. The April 30 print edition contains a complete report on
the state of the newspaper industry today, including profiles of
10 papers that “do it right.” To subscribe, click here.


Those who think that time has mellowed William Dean Singleton’s
freewheeling newspaper-management style should have seen him in
Denver the other day, when he was in vintage form. Jake Jabs, an
old hunting buddy of Singleton’s, had said some intemperate
things about the MediaNews Group CEO and Denver Post
publisher – and Singleton was about to say some things right
back. Jabs is an outsized personality who has made himself famous
in Denver with years of purposely cheesy TV ads – featuring
him cavorting with tigers – for his American Furniture
Warehouse stores.

Denver had been seeing a lot of Jabs in the local news, too.
Until dropping a lawsuit in mid-April, Jabs had been battling to
roll back the joint operating agreement between MediaNews Group’s
Denver Post and E.W. Scripps’ Rocky Mountain News.
Jabs was charging that Singleton had promised, before the JOA was
approved in January, that his ad costs would increase only a
modest 5% to 10%. But when the deal was done, Jabs said,
Singleton socked him with a four-year contract that would have
immediately doubled American Furniture’s ad rate, followed by
three more annual increases of 25%.

“I took notes on everything Dean said,” said Jabs prior to
pulling out of the legal fray. “He said he would go easy on the
rates: ‘I’ll do right by you,’ ‘We’ll take care of you.’ I don’t
think Dean was born in a cave. He knows when we’re talking about
‘taking care of you,’ that means a modest increase.”

Another publisher, another chairman of a brand-new JOA, might
feel the need to cool down this big and angry customer. (Jabs
says he used to spend about $3 million a year in the two papers.)
Not Singleton. “I am not afraid to call Jake a bully and a liar
and a deceptive businessman,” the Denver media quoted him as
saying. “I am looking forward to a Denver Post and a
Rocky Mountain News with no American Furniture ads.” He
got his wish: American Furniture ran its last ad in the April 1
editions, the day the new joint Post/News rate card took
effect.

Reflecting on the spat in the calm of his 21st-floor office in
MediaNews Group’s Denver headquarters, Singleton allows, “I guess
that reporter caught me in a mood.” Over his shoulder on the wall
is a framed picture of himself and Jabs smiling, in cowboy hats,
after bidding together on a champion steer. Jabs, he said, is a
“good friend” who’ll be back in the paper. “But he won’t be
coming back with a special deal. We don’t make special deals
anymore.” And so Jake Jabs, who has tamed tigers and chased a
dozen furniture competitors out of town, joined the legions
inside and outside the newspaper business who have underestimated
Dean Singleton.

From virtually the moment the newspaper industry first noticed
Singleton, many in it loathed him. He was the 27-year-old
president of Washington banker Joe Albritton’s newspaper
division, and he had already bought and folded Fort Worth’s
second-place daily. Everywhere he went, it seemed, newsrooms lost
their budgets, journalists lost their jobs, and, critics said,
newspapers lost their quality.

The animus only grew stronger when, in 1983 at age 32, Singleton
hooked up with 70-year-old Richard B. Scudder, a fourth-
generation New Jersey publisher then in the newsprint business,
and began buying his own papers. The fledgling MediaNews bought
papers that were barely alive, and in the view of the company’s
many vocal critics, Singleton’s cure – dramatic cuts in jobs
and expenses – was a deadly one for the business and for
journalism.

If the howls were loud when Singleton was buying the
Elizabeth (N.J.) Daily Journals of the world, they
grew all the more raucous when he began playing in the really big
leagues by buying the Dallas Times Herald, The Houston
Post, and The Denver Post. The Houston Post was
folded so suddenly, it never published its own obituary, and
The Times Herald died not long after Singleton sold it to
his onetime associate John Buzetta. To his detractors, Denver
looked to be next, despite the easy terms Singleton had
renegotiated with previous owner Times Mirror Co.

“The entire industry thought Dean Singleton was a bottom feeder,”
says Neil Westergaard, who left The Denver Post as
executive editor in 1999 to become editor of The Denver
Business Journal. “He was reviled – the hatred for him
was palpable. When it was announced he was buying [the
Post], about half the staff immediately sent out r?sum?s.
But those of us who stayed made the right decision, I think,
because he surprised us and the rest of the industry with what he
did in Denver.”

The Post didn’t just survive in Denver, it triumphed.
After a long and expensive newspaper war, the News sued
for peace by asking for a JOA, agreeing to give up its Sunday
paper and paying MediaNews some $60 million. The Denver
newspapers’ proposal to stop business competition avoided the
public hearings and lawsuits that for months and even years had
delayed the approvals of JOAs in Detroit, Seattle, and
Cincinnati.

These days, Singleton tells anyone who will listen that he
intends to plow the extra revenue that will come from the end of
business competition back into the newspapers, with more
journalists and expanded news coverage. The surprising thing is
that a declaration of this kind from Singleton is no longer
dismissed with a cynical laugh. Even his harshest critics
acknowledge that the Post is a worthy paper. And after
years of hearing critics point out that its 50 papers had never
won a major journalism prize, MediaNews finally got the Pulitzer
monkey off its back last year when the Post won the award
for its breaking-news coverage of the Columbine High School
massacre. (In an odd portent of the JOA, the News won a
Pulitzer for its breaking photo coverage of the same event.)

When Singleton formally took the title of Denver Post
publisher after the JOA was approved in January, the action
capped a remarkable turnaround in the paper’s business prospects
– and in the way Singleton is regarded in the newspaper
industry. He didn’t invent the concept of clustering newspapers
or of trimming web widths to save newsprint, but it was his lead
in those practices that set a trend for U.S. newspaper
publishers. His idea to effectively acquire Donrey Media Group’s
10 Northern California newspapers and combine them in a
MediaNews-managed partnership with his own 10 nearby papers and a
Gannett property is admired as an innovative solution, even by
some of his detractors. Singleton has been so successful recently
that even when he steps into an extremely complicated potential
JOA, as with the Salt Lake Tribune and The Deseret
News in Utah, most in the industry believe he’ll figure a way
to make it work.

The one-time enfant terrible of the newspaper business
turns 50 on Aug. 1. As he nears this milestone, the poster boy of
the Type A personality has finally earned a fair amount of
respect, both grudging and generous, from colleagues. David
Sachsman, the University of Tennessee professor who first hung
the label “survival journalism” on Singleton’s brand of
newspapering, now admires what MediaNews has done. “It’s a real
service to America to keep newspapers alive,” he says. “A live
newspaper is always better than a dead newspaper.”

Discussing Singleton, Newspaper Guild president Linda K. Foley
pauses, as if she is surprised herself to hear what she is
saying. “I don’t want to make him sound so good,” she says, “but
I’ve got to tell you, he’s kind of a fun guy to deal with,
because if Dean tells me something, he’ll stick by it.”

One wonders, though, whether Jake Jabs would agree with that
assessment. As Nixon was to politics, Singleton remains a
polarizing figure in the newspaper industry – unforgiven and
distrusted in many quarters. Reporters and media critics tend to
be harshest, to the chagrin of Singleton’s MediaNews partner.
“I’ve got a bone to pick with reporters in our industry,” Richard
Scudder says. “This business about getting on Dean, that he’s
cutting staff on papers … it’s just pure bullshit. These
reporters reduce their profession by reporting without getting
their facts.”

Several former newsroom executives at his papers wouldn’t talk
about Singleton on the record, and they wouldn’t say many kind
words about him off it. “Probably the reason I don’t want to is
– I don’t know that I’m afraid of him anymore, but you never
know when he’s going to come back into your life,” explains one.
“He buys a lot of papers, and you could be back working for him.”

Working for Singleton can be a stormy and frustrating experience,
made all the more intense by relentless budget pressures, some
former executives say. “We’re a passionate company with a lot of
passionate people,” Singleton responds. “They raise their voice
when they’re upset and throw a curse word around now and then. I
hire passionate people because passionate people make things
happen.”

One particularly passionate employee is Pat Robinson, Singleton’s
secretary for 13 years and his older sister for his entire life.
Even as a little boy, she says, he was “entrepreneurial from the
word go.” He would raise hogs for 4-H competitions, anticipating
the price a winning animal could command. He bought those hogs,
Robinson says, the same way he now buys a newspaper. “He would go
talk to the banker. Daddy would co-sign the note, but it would be
his loan,” she recalls. “We had a lot of love, but our parents
didn’t have a lot financially,” she says of their upbringing in
the west Texas town of Graham.

While he sold greeting cards and raised livestock, Singleton the
child always seemed to regard newspapers as his way out of town,
his sister says. And soon enough – remarkably soon – he
was on his way, buying weeklies in fly-speck neighboring towns,
trying and failing to keep the Fort Worth Press alive, and
assembling and running a group of dailies for Joe Albritton.
Still, Singleton wanted something more, and he found inspiration
when he read a biography of S.I. Newhouse Sr.

“Here was a man who started out shining shoes and built the
greatest newspaper company this country will ever see,” he says.
It isn’t just the Newhouse patriarch whom Singleton respects. “I
just totally admire the Newhouses,” he says. “The whole family.
[Advance Publications president] Don Newhouse is a real role
model in this business for anybody.”

There are obvious parallels between the Newhouse chain and
MediaNews. Like Singleton, S.I. Newhouse started out with small
papers that critics regarded as nothing more than mediocre cash
cows. But in recent years, the chain has gained increasing
respect for its journalism at places like The Star Ledger
in Newark, N.J., and for its business practices.

The beginning of Singleton’s own chain dates back to his first
meeting with Richard Scudder. Singleton still remembers the date:
July 15, 1977. He’d just taken over The Paterson (N.J.)
News for Albritton, and he had a mountain of debt –
and no newsprint for the next day’s press run. He called on
Scudder, who then owned a recycled-newsprint mill, in addition to
the Garden State Paper. “I was very impressed that all he
did was talk about how good his paper was and not how much we
owed him,” Singleton recalls.

In Scudder’s retelling of the story, money was very much on his
agenda: “They told me there was this fellow who owed us $400,000
and could I go over and get it?” They were “the odd couple of
American journalism,” as one former editor who knows both of them
well puts it – a patrician elder statesman of the industry
and a young guy from the Texas oil patch. “What we both have in
common is we love newspapers,” Singleton says. Scudder, who turns
88 in May, couldn’t agree more: “We’re both news-dominated,” he
says.

Their MediaNews venture grew quickly after their first purchase,
The Gloucester County Times in Woodbury, N.J., paid for
with a $3 million investment from Scudder. By 1986, Singleton was
buying an average of one paper every 10 days. MediaNews was not
alone. Other young men in a hurry – Ralph Ingersoll, Will
Jarrett, Stephen Rose, to name just three – were also
furiously assembling chains. “If you go back to the ’80s, of all
the entrepreneurs who started out, quite a few of them have
fallen by the wayside. Dean has been by far the most successful
of them all,” says his former associate John Buzetta, who
publishes a group of community papers in east Texas.

To some observers, that’s because the papers – and their
employees, traditions, and communities – don’t mean all that
much to him. “He’s not sentimental about these things,” says the
Newspaper Guild’s Foley. “You’ll never see him doing something
like [Seattle Times chairman] Frank Blethen buying a paper
in Maine because his family vacations there.” A case in point,
some say, was Singleton’s swift decision a few years ago to sell
all of MediaNews’ papers in the state where the company began.

Singleton begs to differ. “It broke my heart to turn over our
first paper, The Gloucester County Times, to Michael
Newhouse,” he says. “When I sold the [North Jersey] Herald
News to Mac Borg, Mac had to finish the presentation to the
board because I broke down in tears. I get very emotional. But
I’m still practical. We wanted to be a major player in New
Jersey, but we lost out. We were a footnote in New Jersey, so we
got out.”

It’s the same with layoffs, Scudder contends. “Dean suffers when
he has to cut a person. I’ve seen it, and the stories you read
about how he doesn’t care, I think it’s just the anger of fired
reporters,” he says. “The history of our company has been buying
failing newspapers. Most of those people wouldn’t be there at all
if it weren’t for Dean.” Singleton, his sister says, “just is
newspapers, inside and out.”

In a way, Dean Singleton, who will be chairman of the Newspaper
Association of America a year from now, doesn’t seem to have a
choice about his calling. He says he’s sticking with newspapers
even as they enter a slow period more sensitive than ever to
cyclical changes in the economy. “There are definitely other
businesses where you can make more money,” he says, “but this is
not a stock portfolio for us. It’s our lives.”



Mark Fitzgerald (mfitzgerald@editorandpublisher.com) is editor at large for E&P.



Related story:
SULZBERGER NAMED E&P PUBLISHER OF THE YEAR (05/08/00)



Copyright 2001, Editor & Publisher.

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