The Singleton Saga
Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.
William Dean Singleton says he loves newspapers. But it was a fluke that brought him into the business.
When he was 14, his family in Graham, Texas, was so poor he started knocking on doors looking for a part time job. The weekly Graham News offered him work in the mailroom and he moved up through the pressroom to writing about sports on the weekend.
Now he owns the twice-weekly Graham Leader. The Graham News has gone out of business.
"I'd have been working at the service station if the service station had a job," says Singleton, 44, the fourth of five children, whose father was an oil field pumper. Today, his older sister, Pat Robinson, is his secretary ;t the Denver headquarters of Singleton's MediaNews Group.
Singleton worked his way through college at the Dallas Morning News but never graduated from the University of Texas. It's not something he regrets. "I thought college was a bore and didn't finish," he says. "I'm a year short."
At 21, he says, he wanted his own newspaper. Two businessmen asked him to run his first paper, a weekly in the small West Texas town of Clarendon. By 24, he was asked by some other businessmen to revive the Fort Worth Press, but the paper soon failed.
In 1976 Singleton joined Allbritton Communications, which five years later bought the Trenton Times from the Washington Post Co. It was in Trenton that Singleton earned his reputation as "Attila the Hun" when he cut the Times' staff by a quarter the day the new owners took over.
"In the early going, he made some fairly brutal cuts," says media analyst John Morton. "As I recall, he was a little out-front about it and did it in a quicker and more public fashion.... But he's come to understand how important the quality of the editorial product is."
In 1983, a year after his father died, Singleton hooked up with Richard B. Scudder, a man 38 years his senior whom Singleton views as a father figure. "Primarily using his money, we started MediaNews," Singleton recalls. "We bought a 25,000-daily newspaper in Woodbury, New Jersey, from Harte-Hanks."
Singleton has had to close a number of newspapers – most recently the Houston Post. He has been the target of harsh criticism from ex-employees, peers and media anaylsts, many of whom portray him as an insensitive businessman who cares little about journalism and people, only about profits. But his venture with Scudder certainly has paid off for him. Today MediaNews owns 80 papers, 18 of them dailies, in 12 states. Forbes Magazine in 1992 put Singleton's worth at $65 million. The company is privately held so precise figures about its finances are not available.
The corporate operation is surprisingly small. MediaNews has a staff of just 17, including two pilots who fly Singleton around the country from newspaper to newspaper. Sometimes he answers his own phone.
Singleton, who has multiple sclerosis, is married and has three children. He travels three weeks out of a month and sleeps four hours a night. He says his favorite way to relax is by working.
In a recent interview Singelton reminisced about his days with Scudder back in Woodbury. "That was our first newspaper," he said. "I was publisher and he was editor and we had a lot of fun.
"Then," he added, "we just started buying newspapers." ###