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From AJR,   August/September 2005  issue

Trading Papers   

You canít tell the owners without a scorecard.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      

All that was missing was the proverbial player to be named later.

Perhaps inspired by the massive NBA trade this week involving five teams and 13 players, media behemoths Gannett, Knight Ridder and MediaNews Group decided to do a little swapping of their own.

When the dust cleared, Knight Ridder had shed the Detroit Free Press, selling it to Gannett; Gannett had lateraled the Detroit News to Dean Singleton's MediaNews; and Knight Ridder had bundled the Tallahassee Democrat with some cash and sent them off to Gannett, in exchange for the Idaho Statesman and two papers in Washington state, the Olympian and the Bellingham Herald.

For the seven starry-eyed romantics who still thought that newspapers were living, breathing entities instead of "assets," here was a jolting reminder that it's all bidness.

Retired Knight Ridder editor Walker Lundy wrote to Romenesko that the late Jim Batten, a much-beloved Knight Ridder executive, was "spinning in his grave" at the notion that the company had jettisoned such quintessential Knight Ridder papers as the Free Press and the Democrat.

Journalists at six--count 'em six--papers went to work yesterday working for one company and learned they were about to be working for somebody else.

But this is not nearly as big a deal as it would have been in the past. As the industry has become more corporate, the lines between the companies have largely blurred.

All the players got something out of the real-life Monopoly game. Knight Ridder cast off a business it couldn't control--Gannett had the upper hand in the agency that controls the Detroit JOA--and exited a declining market while adding more profitable papers. Gannett got control of the morning market and the Sunday paper in Detroit and a larger share of the JOA pie. And Singleton picked up another major metro paper for his burgeoning empire.

I've watched Singleton's ascent to media mogul--MediaNews is among the nation's largest newspaper companies--with great interest. Because, as they say, I knew him when.

Back in 1981, I was managing editor of the Trenton Times, an excellent medium-size paper with a terrific staff. Then the Washington Post Co., to my great surprise, sold the paper to Joe L. Albritton.

The paper was losing money, so Albritton sent a young man named William Dean Singleton to whip it into shape. On the first day of Albritton ownership, the paper laid off 60 staffers.

So I can't say I started out as a major Singleton fan (although he did have a cool sports car). But I did watch with some awe as Singleton and his partner Richard Scudder started buying up newspaper after newspaper.

When it came to acquiring struggling dailies, slashing and burning and turning them into moneymakers, there was nobody quite like Dean. Of course, the papers didn't remind anyone of the New York Times, but that wasn't the point.

To give Dean his due, I doubt that the Oakland Tribune would be alive today if he hadn't bought it and applied the Singleton formula. And he has evolved, some. When AJR sent Jill Rosen to check out his flagship Denver Post in 2003, she found a paper far superior to the Singleton stereotype.

At a reception at the American Society of Newspaper Editors convention in New Orleans in 2003, Singleton took me aside for a chat. Among other things, he explained to me that quality journalism was a good business strategy.

Who knew?

While Singleton is getting a paper in Detroit whose fortunes have tumbled dramatically--circulation is down to 219,000--don't worry too much about his financial prospects. He gets to reposition it as a morning paper. More significant, he gets a share of the profits from both papers.

And Gannett gets to dominate Detroit.