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American Journalism Review
Can Dean Singleton Save the Oakland Trib?  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   December 1992

Can Dean Singleton Save the Oakland Trib?   

Can Dean Singleton Save the Oakland Trib?

By Chris Kent
Chris Kent, a San Francisco-based freelancer.      


The financially troubled Oakland Tribune has a new owner, but it's understandable if staffers aren't dancing in the streets. William Dean Singleton says he plans to slash costs and eliminate about 400 of 650 jobs at the 118-year-old daily when he takes over this month – a modus operandi that has kept other struggling Singleton acquisitions afloat.

Singleton hails his purchase as a resuscitation, saying the Tribune was destined to close without the $8 million in capital he provided to buy its name, 110,000 circulation and advertising accounts. And veteran editor David Burgin, tapped to oversee editorial development from his post as head of Singleton's Alameda Newspaper Group, promises big improvements in content and coverage. Singleton has also named Pearl Stewart, a former San Francisco Chronicle reporter who covered Oakland for 11 years, as editor.
Under Burgin's guidance, readers of the "new" Tribune can expect such Singleton hallmarks as splashy graphics, high profile columnists and warm-and-fuzzy news stories. Before becoming editor in chief of the Alameda group, comprised of four dailies east of San Francisco and now the Tribune, Burgin edited the San Francisco Examiner, the Orlando Sentinel and the Singleton-owned Dallas Times Herald and Houston Post. Singleton now owns 17 papers.

Tribune owners Robert and Nancy Maynard, who bought the Tribune in 1983 from Gannett but earned profits in only two of the following eight years, signed a deal with Singleton in mid-October. The Maynards nearly had to close the paper in August 1991 before a rescue by the Freedom Forum (see WJR, October 1991). Fourteen months later, Robert Maynard told employees he could no longer run the paper, the nation's only black-owned major daily, because of his long battle with prostate cancer. Singleton will repay the $9.5 million the Forum had loaned the Maynards.

Singleton's immediate plans include opening a Washington bureau and beefing up the San Francisco and Sacramento bureaus, Burgin says. The paper will also add full color and share its sports and entertainment sections with the Alameda papers.

A new column, "Frisco Schmisco," will hype the civic rivalry with San Francisco.

Burgin says that "the Tribune was like the Alamo – they didn't have enough guns and enough bodies." That will change, he says, by joining forces with the Alameda chain. Editorial and business operations will be combined and operate from one location after the newsroom is moved out of the earthquake-damaged Tribune Tower.
Alec Davis of the Tri-Valley Herald fears he and other reporters from the suburban Alameda chain may appear as outsiders when covering Oakland's multi-ethnic population. "There's precious little diversity on our staff, and that's going to come through," he says.

"That's one of the reasons I'm here," responds Stewart, who is black, as are new Assistant Managing Editor Charles Jackson and Editorial Page Editor Mary Ellen Butler, "so people will understand that we'll focus on urban issues."

Besides, she adds, "it's not like it's going to be reporters from the suburbs coming in to cover Oakland.... I'd like to see some of the diversity at the Tribune carried to the rest of the group."

Even with Stewart's guidance, Editor Gloria Salvante of the weekly Alameda Journal isn't convinced that the Tribune's new owner will maintain the local focus the paper had under the Maynards. Salvante, a staff writer at the daily Alameda Times-Star in 1986 when Singleton purchased the paper, says the Journal was launched soon after because the "much slicker" Times-Star seemed to be ignoring local issues.

There's also been grumbling from within. Immediately after the purchase, some reporters at Singleton's Alameda papers said they were perplexed that their boss could find millions to save the Tribune but hasn't given most of them raises in three years. "We certainly want to be a first-class newspaper chain," says reporter Evette Reiss of the Fremont Argus. "But where was the money before?"

Burgin has little patience for naysayers. "What Dean does is save newspapers and save jobs," he says. "Somebody should give him a medal."
Mitchell Schnurman, a Fort Worth Star-Telegram business reporter who worked with Burgin at the now-defunct Dallas Times Herald, says he can understand concerns about Singleton. But he says that Burgin is especially skilled at livening up papers, a talent that could help the Tribune gain readers. "What I witnessed was someone creating a paper that would appeal to everyday people," says Schnurman. "He's not into the usual precepts of journalism – he's very much into TV and entertainment." Schnurman and others also point out Burgin's passion for competition.

Nonetheless, wistful reporters here are saddened by the Trib's sale to an out-of-town owner. "The guy who owns the Trib will no longer walk to lunch in his own city, bend his ear to complaints or compliments, drive home and hit a pothole and say, 'Potholes! I'm gonna do something about that!' " lamented Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll. "Now it's seen as a tidy little profit center for one of those venture capital companies with a squished-together name."

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