AJR  Features
From AJR,   December/January 2004

The Next Level   

For years Dean Singleton and quality journalism were rarely used in the same sentence. But now Singleton is talking the talk about his flagship Denver Post. Will he spring for the resources to allow his ambitious editor to make the paper one of the nation�s elite?

By Jill Rosen
Jill Rosen is AJR's assistant managing editor     

Correction appended

Four years ago William Dean Singleton, hard-charging owner of the nation's seventh-largest newspaper company, MediaNews Group, talked to a trade publication about hard-charging journalism--about how it's not good for business.

"We, as an industry, got carried away with investigative reporting," he complained. "We investigated everything that moved, while circulation plummeted because our readers didn't want it. Some people say we owe it to readers to give them what they need. Bullshit."

Not long ago Singleton, facing another reporter in his Denver office, was on that topic again. Except now investigations are the ideal. What he wants is for his flagship property, the Denver Post, "to dig deeper and do harder-edge reporting."

"On the East Coast newspapers are much more hard-hitting, more inclined to do investigations than newspapers in the heartland," he muses. "I thought we owed it to Colorado to give it that kind of newspaper."

Singleton, who bought his first newspaper when he was a mere 21, has always been associated with bare-knuckled, feisty, in-your-face business dealings. But journalism like that? Hardly.

Up until a few years ago, newsrooms were only mentioned in the same breath as Singleton if the conversation involved staff cuts. No more. Now, when it comes to his Denver Post anyway, where he's also the publisher, Dean Singleton, 52, talks of prizes and national reputation, of making the powers that be in town sweat, of copy that hits hard and, above all else, of a paper that makes him proud.

Though the Denver Post is on few people's lips when they're rattling off the nation's top papers, Singleton vows that will change. He wants it to be among the country's recognized best. He wants it to be "the bible of the West." He wants a lot. Perhaps more than the Post can deliver. But a year-and-a-half ago, most agree Singleton took the first tangible step toward bringing all that talk a bit closer to reality by hiring the aggressive and ambitious Gregory Moore from the Boston Globe as editor.

In the notoriously slow-to-change newspaper industry, media watchers take in Singleton's apparent metamorphosis with an incongruous mix of bewilderment, bemusement, skepticism and appreciation. Yeah, the guy whose reputation is all but the Mr. Burns of modern newspapering (almost any article on Singleton includes the adjective "ruthless" and something meaning cheap--skinflint is a favorite) seems to be doing a decent Ben Bradlee impersonation. But can he, or rather will he, put his money where his mouth is? And if not, how much can the Post improve?

Jaws dropped in 1987 when Dean Singleton, just days after buying the Houston Post, announced that Denver's Post would be his as well. His company, MediaNews, was then just four years old--even more shocking, a few years before that, Singleton owned nothing. In the 1970s he sold his scrappy collection of Texas weeklies to clear the debt from the disastrous purchase of his first daily, the Fort Worth Press. So with his infant company, Singleton had been picking up second-rate publications, often losers, then squeezing profits from them any way he could. With his tandem purchase of the Posts, both major properties, Singleton's player status couldn't be denied.

Times Mirror essentially gave Singleton the sagging Denver paper, which at the time was staggering in its duel with the E.W. Scripps-owned Rocky Mountain News, a century-old, gloves-off brawl, perhaps the last great newspaper war. Times Mirror, eager to clear that battle zone, dumped the Post into Singleton's hands for $95 million, the price it paid for it, then threw in a spanking new $77 million printing plant to boot. "This paper was left for dead," Singleton says. "Nobody except maybe me thought it was going to make it."

His foresight paid off. In about a dozen years, he had not only steadied the Post's course, but also turned the tide in the newspaper war. The Rocky, bleeding money like a battered prizefighter, cried uncle, entering into a joint operating agreement with the Post--with the Post in the dominant position.

On that spring day in 2000, just after Singleton took the podium at a Denver hotel to announce the JOA with Scripps honchos, he went to address the Post newsroom. As reporters and editors milled around, Singleton climbed atop a desk in the middle of the clutter. And though lots of things were said that day, fabulous things that no one in the room ever really expected to hear, one thing Singleton said stood out above all else: He would hire 100 more people for the newsroom over three years.

This from the same man who a few years earlier tearlessly pulled the plug on the Houston Post, the man who shaved the Oakland Tribune's total staff from 630 to 280, the man who canned 60 people at New Jersey's Trenton Times hours after taking over--and the man who once told a reporter that if he had to choose between pleasing one banker or 1,000 journalists it would be the banker, no question. But there he was, up on a desk, making editorial promises in front of God and everyone.

Because of how he resuscitated the Post, Editor & Publisher deemed Singleton publisher of the year in 2001. Last year his peers elected him chairman of the Newspaper Association of America, an advocacy group for the newspaper industry. Stories of Singleton's unapologetically unsentimental corporate approach still circulate enthusiastically, but anymore, the Singleton buzz is more likely to be tempered praise than scorn.

Yet, in the Denver Post newsroom, that initial burst of applause for Singleton on JOA day has faded over three years into a common grouse: What happened to those 100 people? Budget by budget, they're coming--though the newsroom hasn't seemed to notice, it's 49 positions heavier than three years ago. And to be fair, not long after Singleton promised the additional troops, the bottom fell out of the economy. To be even fairer, while many newspaper owners forced cutbacks and layoffs, the Post has felt none of that.

But, while he's pulled in the reins on the editorial dream-team concept, Singleton, if anything, has only stepped up his talk of elevating the Post. And the talk without, as it were, a definitive walk, frustrates people in the newsroom, even those who want to believe him.

Most everyone agrees that if Singleton is serious about a national reputation for the Post, getting there will take nothing less than a significant staff increase. Now the Post has 278 full-time equivalents in the newsroom. With a circulation of 288,937, that puts it well below the 346 people recommended by industry guidelines for a paper that size. Post Projects Editor Dan Meyers, who came to Denver from the Philadelphia Inquirer, says, "The staffing level at this point is quite a lot below what it needs to be to really move into another league powerfully and irretrievably. We need quite a few more people, excellent people."

Excellence, to be sure, is on the mind of Post Editor Greg Moore. With Moore, there's no pretty good. And there's certainly no average. If the Boston Globe veteran has sent the Denver newsroom any message during his first year-and-a-half on the job, it's a two-pronged one: First, he wants 100 percent from everyone, always--and a paper each day that reflects that fire. Second, before he walked in the door, that wasn't happening.

Taken together, those two concepts work like shock therapy--invigorating and eye-opening, yet scary as hell. Moving stridently, Moore jolted the newsroom out of its comfort zone by shuffling beats, bringing in new blood and tossing out whatever or whoever struck him as dead wood. Famously, in the midst of a staff meeting during a controversy over Moore's firing of a well-liked assistant city editor, an editor who was at the meeting, Moore said, "The way to clean up a place is not to move manure around the barnyard."

Michael Roberts, who keeps an eye on Denver media doings for the alternative weekly in town, Westword, says though the maligned editor sued and staffers howled a little--about this incident and some other unpopular staff changes--the general sense is that Moore's on the right track, even if that track is a touch less diplomatic than it could be. At this point, the end seems more important than the means. "Most people," Roberts says, "don't think it's a bad thing that people are always looking over their shoulder."

Even newsroom veterans agree that someone had to do something. But if there's anything they're sick of hearing about, it's editors who want to "take it to the next level." Yawn, tell them something they haven't heard. They heard it in 1993, when Neil Westergaard took over from the retiring Gil Spencer. They heard it in 1996, when Dennis Britton replaced Westergaard. Again in 1999, when Glenn Guzzo replaced the reviled Britton. And last year, when Guzzo was brushed aside for Moore. Every couple years, a new regime, a supposed new level.

"It's such a meaningless phrase," says Post TV critic Joanne Ostrow, who laughs, a little bitterly, about the well-worn tradition of calling a staff meeting to meet the new guy, hearing the blah-blah-blah promises, then everyone "trudging back to our desks to place bets on how long till the next regime." But as done as the staff was with turnover, she says the ol' kicked-about promise had a fresh ping about it coming from Moore. The 49-year-old brought not only a stellar reputation from Boston but also a stripped-down gravitas that the newsroom couldn't help but notice. Hell, even the building's security guards caught it--"Doesn't he just walk like the editor?" one of them wondered aloud recently as Moore hurried by.

No one was more surprised than Ostrow to find herself actually believing Moore as he made his just-in-the-door, bags-hardly-unpacked promises to raise the bar. "There's a sense of a different energy at the top and resources to back it up," she says. "We consider ourselves on a more national playing field. Some of my peers scoff at that--more taking-it-to-the-next-level talk. But it's a real city, it's to be taken seriously, we're going to cover it that way.... This is the guy I was waiting for for 15 years."

Moore does anything but hide his disdain for the pre-Moore Denver Post. He tells a story about how in the '90s, when he was courting his wife, a Black Entertainment Television executive living in Denver, he'd drive "quite a distance" to find a New York Times. "The paper seemed satisfied with what people told it," he says. There wasn't "a lot of surprise in the paper.... I couldn't stand the way it looked."

Singleton, a self-proclaimed Boston Globe junkie who reads the paper at his Cape Cod home ("The Globe does in its community what I want the Post to do in ours," he says), wanted Moore bad. It was his marquee lineage; it was because Moore was even less satisfied with the Post's status quo than Singleton, and, not to be underemphasized, because Moore spoke his language. "I remember calling [Moore] Friday evening and giving him a critique about something in the paper that day," Singleton says with clear delight. "He says, 'Hey boss, were you gonna have your foot in my ass all the time or just part of the time?' " On another occasion, Singleton gleefully recalls, after he told Moore that one-column lead headlines on page one just didn't work for him, Moore replied, "Hey boss, don't give me rules."

Glenn Guzzo, the Post's soft-spoken editor for two-and-a-half years until Moore replaced him--Singleton summed up Guzzo's tenure for Editor & Publisher as, "[he] crawled into his office and shut the door"--is the first to admit that Moore is more Singleton's man than he ever was or could be. Singleton later apologized for his remark saying it was "unfair" and "inappropriate." "Greg is more like Dean in the sense of being very quick in his decision-making and very forceful. My personality is certainly different. They have a much stronger chemistry than Dean and I had."

Singleton has actually called what he and Moore have "a marriage." So with his own healthy confidence bolstered by the security of having his boss behind him, Moore, the newlywed, went after what he wanted at the Post like a bride at Bloomingdale's. What he wanted to target was, in a word, everything. "I felt every area of the newspaper needed to be improved," he said in October during an interview in his glass-walled office. "Really. Everything."

He underlines the depth of his dissatisfaction in the way he ticks off the Post's issues, the things it's not quite there on, the weak, the unimpressive---the "what we needs." They need to break more news, write harder, be more questioning. The design--don't get him started. He's got task forces contemplating the suburbs, the state, what readers are really interested in, convergence, staff development, writing, interviewing skills, ethical standards....

After he finishes raining down his to-do list, it's a little funny when he adds, "It's not a wreck or anything like that." That doesn't quite work after the part about how "every area of the newspaper needed to be improved." But he's seeing the upswing. He calls the metro section, Denver and the West, "vastly improved," with reporters getting after stories and writing them better. He says that the paper is taking more risks, playing stories and photos better and, in general, "humming at a better pace."

"We're still figuring some things out, but clearly what we're doing now is better than what was going on before June 9, 2002," he says, noting his arrival date. "I enjoy reading the paper more. I don't throw it across the room."

He's no longer throwing it--take that praise home and pin it on the fridge. For the most part, the staff seems to get Moore's tough-love routine, the hard-ass teacher that pushes the kids to do their best work. "This team is the most aggressive news leadership I've seen in my 16, 17 years here," says reporter and Guild representative Jeff Leib. "I see and feel the results of that every day, the push for enterprise, the push for aggressive coverage. I'll give Singleton credit for courting Greg Moore and winning him, because I think it has changed the paper."

At one afternoon news meeting that Moore joins late, he finds his top editors already there, rehashing that day's stories. On the table for A1 is news from Kobe Bryant's preliminary hearing, a Staten Island ferry crash, the Bronco quarterback breaking his foot while getting up from his sofa...something about nuns.

An online editor points out the Post had the Kobe photos online hours before the Rocky. Moore, who's trying to catch up, asks for a quick summary about developments in the case. There's stunningly damning news about the victim. It looks like the lead and Moore has a little advice for the team: "Make sure we don't write something ass-backwards like yesterday." They all laugh as an editor quips, "Write that down: No. Ass. Backwards."

Though the Post was tough enough to win the city's newspaper war before Singleton's desktop pledge for greatness and before the entrance of Greg Moore, and skilled enough to bring home a Pulitzer Prize for breaking news for its coverage of 1999's Columbine High School massacre (see "Covering the Big One," July/August 1999), no one would say it delivered a stellar package on a day-to-day basis.

It still doesn't. But those who know the paper best see it inching in that direction.

Former Post Executive Editor Neil Westergaard, who stayed in Denver after quitting his job eight years ago and now leads the Denver Business Journal just up the street from his old paper, has seen hints of promise lately.

"It was the first time in a long time I thought the paper had stepped up," Westergaard says, talking about a September investigation the Post did after area police shot to death a mentally handicapped teen who was brandishing a knife. Though both Denver papers covered the incident, the Post took it deeper, discovering that officers involved in this and other shootings had been in one police academy class in the '80s, a class nicknamed "The Animals." Since then, that class had amassed "an unmatched record of shootings and killings." "Someone [at the paper] was obviously looking for a reason to explain a phenomenon in the community," he says. "I'm sure it took some courage to publish that."

TV critic Ostrow sees the Post packing more hard news, less warm fuzz. The old Klondike and Snow Syndrome, the paper's propensity to feature the Denver Zoo's crowd-pleasing polar bear duo any chance it got during the mid-'90s, has been replaced with more depth and stories that demonstrate the paper's desire for prizes. "They're working toward having a whole level of editors to plan and think, forward-looking instead of just putting out fires," she says.

Fred Brown, now retired from the Post after spending the bulk of his career there as a reporter, sees his paper taking readers beyond their traditional mountain borders and giving them more to chew on. "There's more of a tendency to write for a sophisticated audience," he says. "More storytelling, less minute-taking."

Plus there've been attempts, some more successful than others, to inject vitality, even--gasp--hipness into the Post's familiar, safe, style-free style. A little Eminem on the front page. A Sunday feature on "hip-hop hookups," a cleverly fresh look at the trend of hip-hop artists collaborating on songs. An August 2002 front-page feature about a young man with a 3.93 GPA who couldn't get in-state tuition at a local college because he was an illegal immigrant moved readers and fired up lawmakers.

At the Rocky Mountain News, the staff has heard more than enough, though, about its competitor teetering on the verge of greatness. Yes, they see the new bylines. No, they're not that impressed. They think they whup the Post regularly. Lynn Bartels, who covers politics for the Rocky, says, "For all its advantages, the Sunday paper, the name recognition, more reporters, on a lot of days it's painfully boring... One paper is better written and better done, and it's not the Denver Post."

No one is missing the infusion of new faces that Moore has brought on board. Diversity is in, as are big-time credentials.

Guzzo says he saw the "talent shortage" when he first arrived at the Post and tried his best to "upgrade." "Let's just say there were a lot of people in that newsroom who wanted to live in Colorado," he says. "I'm not going to use the term dead wood. But they wouldn't have been hired with the standards there are today."

"The firepower at this paper is now considerable," Projects Editor Dan Meyers says--people from the Boston Globe, Newsday, the Chicago Tribune, the Philadelphia Inquirer, USA Today.... Len Ackland, who teaches journalism at the University of Colorado at Boulder, says the new blood has brought "more energy to the paper than I've seen in 12 years."

What's universally accepted as the moment the Denver Post took its first big-league step actually predates Moore. It was sending a team of reporters to Afghanistan and beyond after September 11. With six staffers overseas at once, 16 over a period of months, the Post had as many players over there, if not more, than some of journalism's acknowledged A-teams. That, says Westword's Roberts, "sent a message to the staff that we're not just gonna be satisfied being a decent paper in Denver, Colorado."

Singleton uses the post-9/11 coverage to make a point about how he will open his wallet when it counts. He says the Post "spent an extra million" on the overseas coverage and that "that was my insistence.... I pushed that because it was our chance to show we were different than before."

"Bullshit," says Glenn Guzzo, editor at the time. "None of that was Dean's idea. All of those decisions were made without consulting Dean." Moreover, Guzzo says, every dime of the million dollars the coverage cost came from the existing budget--he froze positions and shuffled numbers to pay the bill. "At no time did Dean allow us to stretch the budget," he says.

"What we said was, 'Look, we have ambition to be one of the great newspapers in America. This is the story of our times. If we're serious, we need to start with this, we can't wait for the next one.' "

One perennial measuring stick for a paper's scope and ambitions is its willingness to use its own reporters to cover international events. Though the Post has demonstrated its reporters will get out passports in times of crisis--it also sent seven people to cover the war in Iraq--the paper has no overseas bureaus. Word has been that someday the paper will have outposts in the Middle East and possibly Mexico. This year the paper went so far as to post an ad to fill the Middle East slot, but Moore pulled back, saying he'd rather use the money in suburbia. "We'll do Tel Aviv," he says, "when we've done a good job of covering Aurora."

And the job can't be done without new hires. Though going to Afghanistan filled the newsroom with pride, it depleted its resources. "We had more staff overseas than we had in the suburbs," Dan Meyers says. "We're not a plushly staffed newspaper. When we try to reach out in our coverage that way, something has to give."

Dave Kopel, research director for a Denver public policy group, who also writes a media column in the Rocky Mountain News, says to be on the A-list, the Denver Post can't rely on wire. "The Post after 9/11 made a big deal of stepping up for coverage and sending people all over the place. That seems to have faded away," he says. "Surely it's extremely expensive, but in the quest to be in the top five, get more boots over there."

Greg Dobbs, a longtime ABC News correspondent who now hosts an AM-radio morning show in Denver and, for a while, wrote a media column for the Rocky, says he's been waiting for Singleton's promised overseas expansion. "If you have a bureau, you can find a perspective that the New York Times or the AP won't have," he says.

However, these international ambitions strike former Post Editor Gil Spencer as overreaching. "These other papers have been set up for that for years; that's what they do," he says. "To say the Denver Post should be that, I just don't think that's its mission.... I just think the paper could get hurt if it tries to do things it isn't made to do."

Three to five years. That's Moore's best guess on when people will see it. What exactly "it" is, that's hazy. Something people will know when they see.

So it's one of those when-not-if scenarios. Singleton, Moore--pretty much everyone--agrees that it's within the Denver Post's reach to run with the big dogs. Or, at least, to run more like a big dog. "Our reach still exceeds our grasp," Meyers says. "The Post is taking firm, decisive steps toward our goal. Not to be the Philadelphia Inquirer or the Boston Globe or any other paper, it's to be a really great Denver Post."

Singleton's wishes for the Post, to send it to "Top 5," or to have it recognized as "the bible of the West" are, most likely, not going to happen. What the Post could well become is a better version of itself, a paper that does work that someone just might compare to a top-fiver, or a paper that's regarded as one of the best in the West.

When talking about how high the Post's plane can fly, gently, carefully, people hint at limits, at reality. Post retiree Fred Brown says it this way: "Readers here don't get outraged like they do in New York, Boston, Philly. It just doesn't happen. They don't care if the government is screwed up.... Journalists shouldn't write just for other journalists, a cautionary suggestion."

The message: Push, but not too hard. And not in the wrong direction. "Dreams are fine," says Spencer, "but they have to be tinged with reality." The international reporting and some of the bigger dreams shouldn't be the Post's, he says, but the paper "is in a wonderful position to do great things.... You have to be careful of taking it where it should go instead of where you want it to go."

Colorado University's Ackland says a reasonable advancement would be for the Post to actually be what its masthead trumpets: "the voice of the Rocky Mountain Empire." He says the Post is not a national player, but more "a regional player now with potential. I'd like to see it as a stronger regional paper," he says. "That's kind of a league above where [it] is."

Westword's Roberts says considering its size and its lack of regional competition, the Post "already should be dominating the Rocky Mountain West." "It's fair to say they should be a better paper given the resources they have," he says. "If Singleton actually spent the money, it could be a lot better."

"Five best? No, but I don't think we thought it would be like that," Moore says. "Is the Boston Globe 200 more people better than we are? There are newspapers out there with more resources, but we'd get a lot done with 30 to 40 more--it's scary to think what we could do."

"Dean Singleton has never been driven by money," Singleton is saying about himself--it's just like last night's baseball playoff game. If you were watching carefully, he says, if you saw the face of the Florida Marlins owner when he found out his team was World Series-bound, you could just tell that whatever was in his head at that victory instant, it wasn't financial. "It must have been exhilarating for this guy who two years ago bought the Marlins when they weren't a sure thing," he says. "Baseball is a business, but I'm sure he wasn't thinking about how much money was involved in the World Series. That said, he probably got to work today and had to be sure he'd make payroll."

It always comes back to the payroll, or the economy...or the bankers. Singleton won't take back his oft-quoted preference for bankers over journalists. "My job is not to make journalists happy," he scoffs. "I would probably still say that." But the "skinflint" and "cheap" labels--those chap him. "It's just wrong, it's just wrong," he says. And probably said by "somebody who's never done anything in their life.... I don't worry too much about what others think. I worry about what I do."

And so do the thousands of journalists who work for him. Gary North, a copy editor at Variety who used to work at the Long Beach Press-Telegram, was inspired to cofound Credibility Watch, a group that trains a skeptical eye on local media, particularly the owners, when Singleton bought his old paper from Knight Ridder and proceeded to cut staff, newshole, wages and benefits. He says MediaNews' smaller properties aren't getting the Denver, "crown jewel" treatment--"the reporters will tell you they're still treated like dirt," he says. And as for Singleton's commitment to local news, North says it's there, "in the sense that it fills in around the ads."

To be sure, Singleton's other newspaper properties aren't exactly reaching for the stars. Holding on for dear life is more the rule at places like the San Francisco Bay Area's ANG Newspapers, which laid off 17 editorial workers earlier this year. Vicki DiPaolo, director for the Southern California Media Guild, which represents employees in MediaNews' Los Angeles Newspaper Group, says when Singleton made a big play this fall to buy Freedom Communications, a company with papers in key MediaNews areas, it didn't sit well with employees who have struggled for wage increases and overtime pay, and who have seen the size of their papers and newsrooms shrivel. "The whole situation comes down to people not feeling respected," she says.

But Singleton insists that the time is now--or at least when the economy picks up--to take just a little of the energy he's spent through the years on collecting and retooling newspapers and put it into their quality. Spend some time on the reader, as well as the banker. Singleton, who cranked copy for small Texas papers as a teenager, insists that beneath his capitalist pinstripes beats a journalist's heart. He vividly recalls his first A1 scoop, how he waited until the wee hours of the morning to catch a paper as it rolled off the press, how he woke his parents up at 2 a.m. to see his name out front. "The news was what I liked the most, but [I've had] to spend virtually all my time on the business side because that's what had to be done to build a company."

Even newsroom types believe Singleton cares about "the words." No matter where he is in the country, he gets the Denver Post and the Salt Lake Tribune (he's the publisher there too) sent to him. At annual editors' meetings, he doesn't sneak out early. He's interested. But this journalist's heart business gives the newsies pause. Says Gil Spencer, who has also edited New York's Daily News and the Philadelphia Daily News: "I don't think that's his game. I don't think you can be 40 or 50 years old and all of a sudden be a newspaper man."

The favorite guess as to the genesis of Singleton's late-blooming crush on editorial is that he's doing some legacy tweaking. He's got multiple sclerosis, he's in peak midlife crisis years; clearly, the rationale goes, he wants the epitaph to say something other than "skinflint."

Singleton pooh-poohs the legacy theory. But the MS is real and on his mind. "It's there. It's debilitating. It's getting worse," he says. "I will not live a long life. So maybe it does cause me to be in more of a hurry than I have been to do what I'm gonna do."

So, he says, he's as frustrated as anyone that the economy is holding him back, preventing him from spending money on the Post, keeping the rest of those 100 new staffers on ice. "No one is immune from economic reality," he says. "There are not limitless opportunities when you're 900 million in debt. You can't go hog wild. I know exactly what I'm doing.

"In doing so, some will think I'm cheap."

Moore, for one, doesn't feel like he's in limbo, or that he doesn't have what he needs to do his job. "I don't feel like we're standing in place waiting for the economy to get better to start our mission," he says, adding that he's spent enough to lure quality journalists to town. The school of thought that says nothing will happen for the Post without an extra hundred bodies is, in his mind, misguided. "When is the cavalry coming?" he says they're all asking. "The cavalry is coming and they don't even realize it."

Correction: The original version of this story refers to a critical comment MediaNews Group owner William Dean Singleton made about former Post Editor Glenn Guzzo. It should have been noted that Singleton later apologized for that comment.