More MS news articles for May 2002

Newspaper war in SLC Singleton says MediaNews will prevail in court

Sunday, May 05, 2002
Associated Press Writer

DENVER -- Three-time college dropout and son of a Texas oil roustabout, Dean Singleton said he was too busy trying to make money to ever finish school.

He found his calling early, buying his first, tiny newspaper when he was 21.

He went broke by 25.

But today Singleton presides over a $1.5-billion newspaper empire, MediaNews Group Inc., which owns 49 dailies and 94 non-dailies across 12 states -- including his flagship, The Denver Post.

Singleton earned the industry's respect waging the Rocky Mountain News "penny war" for a decade until his Post and the News forged a joint operating agreement two years ago.

Now Singleton, 50, is at the center of a very different kind of newspaper war, on the other side of the Rocky Mountains in Salt Lake City.

It's a war in federal court, not the street corner, that involves a cross fire of litigation, 42 lawyers and $500-an-hour consultants instead of penny subscriptions.

MediaNews bought The Salt Lake Tribune 16 months ago but has yet to gain clean title or wrest control from the McCarthey family, which still manages the company and is suing to enforce a disputed option to buy the paper back this summer.

"We knew we were buying an asset that had a lot of hair on it," said MediaNews President Jody Lodovic, Singleton's right-hand man, as both sat down for a two-and-a-half-hour interview.

Singleton, the chief executive for MediaNews, has little financial and no editorial control over the Tribune, but said it doesn't bother him. He's certain he will prevail in court, saying a series of takeovers left the Tribune vulnerable.

The case could be decided by this summer, and Singleton figures he's within months of sealing his latest deal: $200 million for a paper he said could be worth twice that.

"Salt Lake City is a great newspaper market," he said. "It really deserves a good newspaper, and we'll give it one."

Singleton has a reputation for getting what he wants. He's known for driving a hard bargain and keeping his word. When he bought the ailing Denver Post in 1987, he wrangled union concessions, then returned the favor, raising wages and winning the grudging respect of The Newspaper Guild.

Married with three children, Singleton has dealt with debilitating multiple sclerosis for years, but it has barely slowed him down or kept him from his only diversion, skiing.

He became chairman of the Newspaper Association of America last week and renewed a term on the board of The Associated Press. He was named Publisher of the Year in 2001 by the trade magazine Editor & Publisher.

In interviews, Singleton hardly seems the polished, million-dollar executive. His Texas drawl can be gruff. Asked if he fought the Denver newspaper war to a draw, he bellowed: "I won that war!" He said the News paid the Post truce money for the joint operating agreement that unites the business operations of both papers.

Singleton's hand was seen Friday when he said he was replacing Denver Post editor Glenn Guzzo with Greg Moore, managing editor since 1994 at The Boston Globe. Guzzo, who had been appointed by a previous publisher, said Singleton wanted to name his own editor.

In Salt Lake City, Singleton didn't hesitate when he saw an opportunity to grab a crown for his Rocky Mountain empire.

It's a nasty fight. In and out of court, Tribune executives and their lawyers have branded Singleton a ruthless, cost-cutting interloper trying to exploit some ambiguity in dense corporate contracts to run off with their cherished newspaper.

Singleton had some rough going in the 1980s, cutting small-newspaper staffs or closing papers that couldn't make it. Tribune defenders point to the demise of the Forth Worth Press, Dallas Times Herald and Houston Post, all No. 2 papers in their Texas markets.

"You don't win everything you try," shrugs Singleton, who said he overcame the hard times. He did save The Oakland Tribune, and his Denver Post won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting on the Columbine high school shootings of 1999.

Singleton has made a believer of some skeptics, including newspaper unions. "The thing about Singleton is, a deal's a deal," said Linda Foley, president of The Newspaper Guild.

When Singleton took over the troubled Denver Post in 1987, he got a 3-percent wage rollback and six-year wage freeze from the union representing editorial employees, said Tony Mulligan, administrative officer for The Denver Newspaper Guild.

But Singleton left the newsroom largely intact and restored wages when the Post turned a corner. "He's a bright guy. He knows when and when not to pick his fights," Mulligan said.

Phil McCarthey, chairman of the management group that still runs The Salt Lake Tribune, said he fears Singleton would milk the business to feed MediaNews' $1 billion in debt service.

Singleton insists his plan is only to improve the Tribune -- a paper he calls "dull, lifeless and boring."

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