From Woodbury, New Jersey, to Prime Time
The meteoric rise of newspaper magnate William Dean Singleton.
By Lori Robertson
Lori Robertson (firstname.lastname@example.org), a former AJR managing editor, is a senior contributing writer for the magazine.
The meteoric rise of newspaper magnate William Dean Singleton.
William Dean Singleton's Media-News Group empire began with the acquisition of a 24,000-circulation daily in Woodbury, New Jersey, in 1983.
Fifteen years later, thanks to a flurry of purchases in the past year, Singleton finds himself at the helm of the nation's eighth-largest newspaper company, ahead of the Tribune Co. and Thomson, and just behind the fabled Hearst.
Singleton, 46, built his company and his early reputation by buying up faltering, mostly smaller newspaper properties, slashing their payrolls and coaxing them into the black — sometimes drawing sharp criticism in the process.
But his most recent pickup, the 200,000-plus circulation Los Angeles Daily News, is a thriving paper that serves a solid market. MediaNews bought the paper in December from the estate of the late Jack Kent Cooke shortly after acquiring the Long Beach Press-Telegram from Knight Ridder and gobbling up the independent Lowell, Massachusetts, Sun. Its holdings now total 34 dailies and 106 paid weeklies and free papers in 11 states.
Why the recent growth spurt? The market, Singleton says. "You really can't plan your growth strategy because you can only buy a paper when it's for sale, and most only change hands once in a lifetime... It just happens in the last two years we've been very active because the market has been very active."
In the early days of Media-News Group, the organization he cofounded with Richard B. Scudder, a 10,000-circulation daily was "a big deal," Singleton says. "Starting years ago, we could only afford to buy troubled papers, so we did a lot of changes... We started off having to have a profitable business because we had to stay in business."
Times have since brightened. Of his new L.A. paper, the second largest of his holdings behind the Denver Post, Singleton says, "The Daily News is a pretty efficient operation already. There aren't a lot of economic changes." Buying the paper was a strategic move — with it, he has a nice cluster around Los Angeles, including the Pasadena Star-News, San Gabriel Valley Tribune and Whittier Daily News. On the East Coast, the Lowell Sun was a similar effort at clustering: He now has six papers in New England.
Overall Singleton is buying larger, more stable newspapers rather than those on the endangered species list, but some of his acquisitions, like the one in Long Beach, will endure some cutbacks.
Singleton acquired the paper as an asset sale, meaning he's not bound by labor agreements. In January, a fifth of the staff of about 500 lost their jobs, mostly people in administration, circulation and production. All newsroom employees were retained, but at lower wages (some salaries fell as much as 21 percent).
"Nobody enjoys trimming a paper's cost," Singleton says, "but when it's losing money, you have to, to strengthen it." His metaphor for fixing a less-than-secure newspaper? "You have to break an egg to make an omelette."
For some, the omelette has been satisfying. Dave Burgin, former senior vice president and editor in chief of the Alameda newspaper group — MediaNews Group's cluster of the Oakland Tribune, Hayward Daily Review, Fremont Argus, San Mateo Times and Tri-Valley Herald — points to Singleton's resuscitation of the Oakland Tribune in 1992 as an example of what his critics often forget or misconstrue. "That paper was within minutes of extinction, and we saved it," Burgin says. "It didn't die, but to do that, we had to integrate it with other papers as a business decision."
It took some time to adjust to Singleton's approach, says Burgin, but he now agrees that "journalism is a business first and an artistic thing second, something the newsrooms have never understood."
Some still don't understand his methods. Critics point to Singleton's early days as president of the Trenton Times, where, on the day in 1981 that Allbritton Communications became owner, he cut one quarter of the staff.
John Morton, a media analyst and AJR columnist, says early in his career Singleton may have been more likely to favor cost cutting over quality. "He's become much more of a newspaperman than he was," Morton says. "He very much recognizes high quality."
Singleton maintains he always cared about quality. Any criticism about his past, he says, is just "a bunch of disgruntled reporters talking." Papers are usually sold because there's something wrong, he says, and that something is often too many employees or too many staffers in the wrong positions. Singleton suggests that maybe he's not the one changing — the rest of the industry is. Newspaper layoffs in the mid-80s were rare, he says, but now, "Tony Ridder's getting better at this stuff than I am."
Don't expect Singleton to change his ways. "Yeah, we've ruffled a few feathers along the way. Yeah, we've gotten rid of a few veterans who weren't cutting the mustard," he says. "And we'll continue doing that."
He says a publisher's first obligation — the real bottom line — is "to put out a quality paper readers like to read."
How should you judge that? "If a paper is growing, that means readers like what they read. If it's shrinking, that may mean they don't," Singleton says.
He's quick to rattle off stats that support his theory. The Denver Post has doubled its circulation in 10 years, he says. "Could that happen if it were a lousy newspaper?"
Singleton bought the Post, one of his success stories, for a low price from Times Mirror in 1987 and ushered it through tough times in a newspaper war to financial and editorial prosperity. In fact, the Post's daily circulation, 353,786, is now larger than the Rocky Mountain News' 324,858.
Éil Spencer, Post editor from 1989-1993, says one of Singleton's beliefs was not to interfere with editorial operations. "He wanted to put out a goddamn good newspaper," says the now retired Spencer.
Regardless of what editors, reporters, owners and media critics believe about Singleton, his ascent among newspaperdom's big dogs is sure to draw continued attention. In the process, Burgin predicts that "he's evolving [to] where he might beat the rap as far as the anti-newsroom stuff he gets."
Why doesn't Scudder, chairman of the board and equal partner in Media-News Group whom Singleton describes as "the spiritual leader of our company," draw the same kind of ac- rimonious criticism? ###