Employees Raise Concerns About MediaNews Takeover

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One thing about William Dean Singleton: The chief executive of MediaNews Group makes people nervous.With MediaNews on the verge of buying four newspapers from McClatchy Co. for $1 billion, the question now is, what next?

In Detroit, a union leader said employees were disappointed at voluntary buyouts and a decision not to print a Sunday edition of The Detroit News, owned by MediaNews. In San Jose, Calif., where the Mercury News is part of Wednesday’s deal, a union leader said he’s concerned about staffing levels.

“People are nervous, as anyone would be when they don’t know what their fate is,” said Mike Bazeley, a senior Web editor at the Mercury News, which McClatchy has had on the selling block for months. “We’ve been on this roller coaster now since November.”

MediaNews Group Inc., publisher of The Denver Post and other newspapers, is also acquiring the Contra Costa Times, the Monterey County Herald and the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

An official for the labor union representing about 600 workers at the San Jose and Monterey papers remained hopeful government regulators will block MediaNews’ takeover to prevent too many newspapers from falling under the same ownership.

“We haven’t given up yet,” said Luther Jackson, executive officer for the San Jose Newspaper Guild/CWA Local 39098. “All the people we talk to in these communities want more news, not less.”

California Attorney General Bill Lockyer already has signaled he intends to examine the deal to make sure readers and advertisers aren’t hurt by the planned takeover.

Citing Singleton’s cost-cutting history, Jackson predicted MediaNews will try to boost its profits by jettisoning some of the reporters, photographers and editors that perform similar duties at its Bay Area papers.

In a meeting with the Mercury News’ staff late Wednesday, Singleton told employees any decision to cut jobs would be left to the local management teams, according to a reporter who attended the session.

For newsroom staff, Singleton’s reputation is fearsome. Reporters at the Long Beach Press-Telegram recalled getting 15 minutes to reinterview for their jobs after he bought the paper in 1997. Feature writer Debbie Arrington told the Los Angeles Times that some older staffers “felt like they were being sent to the glue factory.”

After acquiring the Oakland Tribune in 1992, Singleton reportedly cut most of the paper’s 600 jobs. And after paying about $150 million for the Houston Post, Singleton closed it in 1995, putting more than 1,000 people out of work.

With no family pot of money and not much of a track record, Singleton has been buying newspapers since his 20s, earning an early reputation for being a cost cutter and taking on papers other people didn’t want.

Yet that’s not the way he’s run one of MediaNews’ biggest names, The Denver Post, said Rick Edmonds, a researcher and writer at the Poynter Institute.

“It’s different now. He may have evolved a bit in what his objectives and strategies are,” Edmonds said. “If he ever was a black sheep in the industry, he’s not anymore. He’s very much an industry leader.”

MediaNews, which Singleton founded in 1983 with newsprint manufacturer Richard Scudder, owns some 40 daily newspapers, four radio stations and a television station.

Independent newspaper industry analyst John Morton said the deal with McClatchy will probably lead to consolidation in administrative offices, at least, and more emphasis on local coverage.

“MediaNews papers didn’t ignore the national and international news, but they clearly put their greatest emphasis on local coverage,” he said.

Jackson thought the opposite was possible.

“We’re concerned about staffing levels and the level of service to the community,” he said. “Obviously there’s concern about what happens in a clustering scenario where one owner owns a number of papers in the same area. There’s a tendency to have regional coverage at the expense of local coverage.”

MediaNews recently took over The Detroit News, where employees are waiting to see how many colleagues will take voluntary separation packages, said Louis J. Mleczko, president of the Newspaper Guild of Detroit.

Analysts have said it makes sense for MediaNews, which owns several papers in the Bay Area, to buy papers in northern California from McClatchy. Morton said there didn’t seem to be a clear strategy for Singleton’s interest in St. Paul, Minn.

Mercury News reporter Dan Reed, who worked for the Oakland Tribune, said the Tribune was hemorrhaging money when Singleton bought it and saved it.

“But because of the market there in Oakland, he paid low wages,” Reed said. “The Merc is making money, and it’s an outstanding newspaper. We’re all concerned right now that he might try to cut wages and benefits, but we don’t know. What I do know is I don’t want to be eating cat food and government cheese in my dotage.”

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