Richard Scudder: Behind the Curtain at MediaNews

By: Joe Strupp

If you ran into Richard Scudder, you might not suspect he wields as much power as Dean Singleton in the ever-changing newspaper world, that he facilitated newsprint recycling, and that he was something of a war hero.

At first glance, the 93-year-old Scudder, who sports a gentle grin and mussed white hair, appears more like a retired grandfather than a powerful media mogul. But get him talking, and the sage newsman quickly emerges.

“The secret of successful business is to find people who are smarter than you are and let them do what they do best,” says Scudder. For 23 years he has been the largely silent partner of MediaNews Group CEO Singleton, who keeps adding new papers to their company. “We are very determined.”

Since the partners bought their first newspaper together in New Jersey in 1983 and formed MediaNews two years later, the company has grown to become one of America’s largest newspaper chains, with some 55 dailies among its holdings. That number does not include the 31 former Knight Ridder dailies and weeklies to be passed along by McClatchy (the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News among them). Add to that such recent deals as the unusual three-way swap that secured The Detroit News last year, and Singleton and Scudder appear more muscular than ever.

“Dick’s my best friend,” says Singleton, who at 54 is young enough to be Scudder’s grandson. “He has an enormous insight into the business, into people, into human nature. He is a dedicated newspaperman.”

But if you were to judge purely by news stories and industry buzz, you might never know of Scudder’s influence. Despite being chairman of the board for MediaNews, and the fact that his family holds a 45% stake in the company — equal to Singleton’s — Scudder isn’t often mentioned when the chain is discussed. “I am a full-time gardener,” Scudder jokes about his low profile during a phone call from his home on the Jersey shore. “I keep up to date with what is going on. We talk several times a day, and everything we do [Singleton] is kind enough to put by me for approval.”

Singleton, who calls Scudder “the conscience of the company,” says every deal requires his stamp, adding that when it comes to big, complicated plans, “he grasps every bit of it.” While Scudder says he was not involved in the Detroit deal other than to approve it, he declines to comment on his role in the McClatchy purchase, saying only that “they are wonderful papers and we are going to make them better.”

One thing the partners do not agree on, however, is President George W. Bush. While Singleton is a longtime friend and supporter of the Bush family, Scudder despises the 43rd president. “He is an idiot,” Scudder declares flatly.

A widowed father of four, Scudder is part of a four-person board of directors that includes his daughter, Jean. The chairman says he still travels to the MediaNews Group headquarters in Denver six to eight times a year for board meetings and other business. He says he doesn’t need to be as involved as Singleton in the deal-making, mostly because the two think so much alike in business matters.

“We have only disagreed once in 23 years,” Scudder says, citing a dispute over a potential editorial hire that Scudder opposed. “What typically happens is that I bring up something I think we ought to look at, and he says, ‘We did that Tuesday.'”

The pair’s relationship is unusual, given their very different backgrounds. Unlike Singleton, who was born and raised in Texas, Scudder is a Newark, N.J., native whose career spanned reporting, Army intelligence, and newspaper recycling. “We are very different people,” Scudder admits. “But we both feel that the news department is everything.” Singleton echoes that view, noting, “We agree on what a newspaper should be: local, local, local.”

Scudder’s views are not surprising given his family history. His grandfather, Newark Evening News founder Wallace Scudder, and his father, Edward Scudder, both ran the paper in the first half of the 20th century. After earning an economics degree from Princeton University, Scudder jumped into the business as a reporter for the Boston Herald in 1935, returning in 1938 to New Jersey as a reporter for the Evening News. His father’s requirement that he learn German as a child led to a top intelligence post in World War II after he was drafted into the Army in 1941. “Operation Annie” was an underground German-language radio station that Scudder and others programmed to mislead the Nazi army; his service there earned a Bronze Star.

After the war, Scudder returned to Newark, where he held several business-side posts at the Evening News before he was named publisher in 1952. It was in that position that he co-invented the newsprint de-inking process that led to the eventual recycling of newsprint. With the help of a local news dealer and a News staff engineer, Scudder formulated the process that resulted in the creation of the Garden State Paper Company in 1961, and the first newsprint recycling plant.

“He was very much ahead of his time in that whole arena,” says John O’Brien, executive director of the New Jersey Press Association. “A forward thinker and visionary.”

It was some 20 years later that Scudder first met Singleton, who was running several newspapers for the late Joe Albritton. One of them was the Paterson (N.J.) Evening News, which owed Scudder’s company about $400,000. Singleton suggested that Scudder buy the Paterson paper as a way to help erase the debt, but he declined. Eventually, they set up a debt-payment plan and became friends.

“I’ve always been attracted to that small group of people who are smarter-than-smart people,” Scudder says. “Dean is one.” By 1983, the pair decided to invest together and bought the Gloucester County (N.J.) Times. That deal led to the purchase of two other New Jersey papers and the formation of MediaNews.

Scudder says the company’s reputation for cost-cutting is somewhat deserved, but not in a negative way. “We have bought a lot of failing papers and you have to make changes,” he says. “But I still require certain ideals at the papers. What should count is how many readers we have.”

In fact, he says Singleton’s reputation in some circles for being a budget-cutter “is not only unfair, it is ignorant.” Recalling the fallout in Long Beach, Calif., when the company bought the Press-Telegram there in 1997, Scudder says he shot back at some newsroom staffers who greeted the new owners negatively. “They did not have all of the facts,” he recalls. “I said, ‘Did you ask questions like a reporter should?'”

More recently, when The New York Times reported on the McClatchy deal, Scudder objected to the paper’s report that MediaNews was a sharp job-cutter by citing its 25-person staff reduction at The Denver Post. He said the reporter failed to mention that the cuts were part of a buyout, and ignored the fact that the paper was still larger than when Singleton took over. “If she worked for me, she’d be writing obits until she learned how to do it right,” Scudder says of the reporter.

It is also common for Scudder to ring up editors with story tips. “But if they don’t want to follow them, they don’t have to,” Singleton says. “He feels like it is a way to help them.”

Asked about his views of President Bush that put him so at odds with his partner, Scudder explains, “I think he has done incalculable harm to the country. We say that we are providing democracy abroad and we violate it here at home. Democracy is in real trouble, and the Bush administration is not doing what it has to, to bring it up to speed.” He adds, “The environmental policies of this country are a disgrace. The administration manipulates truth on every front.”

Singleton acknowledged their differing opinions on the president, citing a disagreement they had in 2004 when the Denver Post and Salt Lake Tribune both endorsed Bush’s re-election. “He had a bit of a problem with it,” Singleton says. “But they were not a reaffirmation of his policies, they were a reaffirmation of his character.”

When asked how he and Singleton get along so well with such differing views on the president, Scudder says, “We just don’t talk about it.”

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