More MS news articles for September 2002

Businessman vs. Newsman, All in One Person

September 2, 2002, Monday, Late Edition - Final
The New York Times

William Dean Singleton is a man of precision when it comes to names, dollars and dates. He remembers when he bought The Fort Worth Press, the first large newspaper he acquired (Aug. 1, 1975). He remembers when it folded (Nov. 5, 1975), just over three months after he bought it. He remembers when, as the top executive of The Trenton Times, he upheld the firing of a reporter who had failed to file a news story consisting of an advertiser's news release verbatim, and instead added accurate details that wound up making the advertiser look bad (1982).

It would be natural for him to remember when he founded the MediaNews Group, the company he serves as chief executive (1985). But he also remembers how many reporters lost their jobs when he bought The Berkshire Eagle in Western Massachusetts (5 of 40). For all his attention to detail, he is not certain just when, exactly, he resolved that the MediaNews Group would be more than just the fastest-growing newspaper company of the last two decades. Since 1985, MediaNews has been buying as many newspapers as its credit lines would afford and stripping them down to produce the cash flow to underwrite the next purchase. But he remembers deciding, in 1999, that if he wanted to build a strong newspaper -- as opposed to just a large newspaper company -- he needed to get going.

The question, then, is whether Mr. Singleton, known as a leading practitioner of bare-bones journalism in the 1980's, has really changed.

For much of his career, he has bought, stripped down and sometimes closed newspapers with a Darwinian fervor, giving him a reputation as the industry's leading skinflint, and earning him the loathing of some journalists at newspapers that died under or after his ownership.

The question of the nature of Mr. Singleton's conversion has been raised since at least the beginning in 1999, when he declared a truce in the fierce battle of The Denver Post and his archrival, The Rocky Mountain News. MediaNews accepted $60 million from the rival's owner, E. W. Scripps, and entered into a joint operating agreement by which the two papers compete editorially but share revenue and business expenses. Three years and three editors later, The Denver Post's newsroom is growing stronger.

Time is an issue for Mr. Singleton, who at the age of 51 has multiple sclerosis, a degenerative nerve disease.

"I wanted to build a great newspaper," he said in a recent interview. "I was so afraid that the battle would go on so long that I wouldn't get the opportunity. I expect to live a long life, but I do have multiple sclerosis. I may not live a long life. I want to do it while I can do it."

Meanwhile, his flagship newspaper is pursuing scoops on local business powers like Qwest and ConAgra, and it is pushing to compete with The News on sports coverage, photography and local news, long areas that The News had dominated. After the attacks on Sept. 11, Mr. Singleton added $1 million to The Post's budget to send 15 journalists to Afghanistan and the Middle East.

Is the cost-conscious businessman, who says he laid aside romantic journalistic ambitions after the quick demise of The Forth Worth Press in 1975, ready -- and financially able -- to make journalism a priority?

Interviews with journalists, industry analysts and executives indicate that the longer it has been since someone has encountered Mr. Singleton, the less likely he is to believe that he has become a born-again convert to high-quality journalism. Instead, the old-timers tend to remember a defining remark by Mr. Singleton that 20 to 40 percent of newsroom staff in most family-owned newspapers was deadwood that needed cutting.

John Morton, a longtime industry analyst, believes that Mr. Singleton, a Texan who is the son of an oil-field worker, "was pretty much a bottom-line guy when he started."

"He's come to care more about journalism," Mr. Morton said. "He has come to realize that success is measured by circulation, and you're not going to get circulation by putting out a lousy product."

But John Mecklin, a former Houston Post reporter who is now the editor of The San Francisco Weekly, an alternative newspaper, and has not had any direct dealings with Mr. Singleton's newspapers for at least seven years, remembers that when Mr. Singleton bought The Houston Post, his approach was to hire 23-year-olds, cut staff and "tell them that writing good briefs is good journalism."

Mr. Singleton himself believes that it is not so much his ambitions that have changed as his financial status. "This is not some sudden revelation that I like great newspapers," he said. "I always did. My views on newspapering have never changed. My ability to afford it has."

What about The Trenton Times reporter who was fired for failing to accept an advertiser's news release as news? "I wouldn't do it again," Mr. Singleton said, adding that there should be "an eight-foot wall" separating the news and advertising departments.

In a three-hour interview, the two Mr. Singletons, the cost-cutting businessman and the news-obsessed newspaperman, jockeyed for the upper hand.

At one moment, he derided Jay T. Harris, the former publisher of The San Jose Mercury News, as "just another publisher who couldn't make his budget." Many journalists have praised Mr. Harris for quitting Knight Ridder last year over a demand tocut costs.

But at another moment, Mr. Singleton talked with animation about aggressive reporting by The York Dispatch in Pennsylvania and The Berkshire Eagle.

Those in Denver who watch Mr. Singleton closely say he is quite comfortable with his contradictory images. Michael Roberts, a reporter for the local alternative weekly, Westword, wrote in an wide-ranging article last year that Mr. Singleton "holds saints in high regard, but he's never claimed to be one." John Temple, the editor of The Rocky Mountain News, said in an interview, "Dean is a very passionate person. And he wants to make money."

Mr. Singleton may feel flush, but his corporate books indicate that he still carries enough debt to make many executives uncomfortable.

From the time of his 1983 purchase of The Gloucester County Times in New Jersey -- which was financed largely by his current business partner, Richard Scudder -- Mr. Singleton has used debt to build his company. The MediaNews Group now owns 46 daily newspapers and 81 nondaily newspapers in nine states from California and New Mexico to Massachusetts and Vermont, including The Los Angeles Daily News and a group of small daily papers east of San Francisco. It is the seventh-largest newspaper company in the country, as measured by total daily circulation; after Advance, it is the second-largest privately held newspaper company.

For years, especially in the recession of the early 1990's, Mr. Singleton lived on a razor's edge financially.

In 1994, MediaNews's predecessor companies sold bonds worth about $90 million and were carrying about $225 million in additional debt -- about eight times the cash flow, a leverage ratio considered extremely high. Today, Joseph J. Lodovic IV, the company's president, says MediaNews's debt is about $955 million. Quarterly reports indicate probable cash flow for the fiscal year 2002 will be $150 to $160 million, giving it a leverage ratio of about seven.

Much of the recent debt has helped finance Mr. Singleton's two big purchases of the last two years. One was The Connecticut Post. The other, far more visible and controversial, was The Salt Lake Tribune. He took over The Tribune earlier this year after a complicated legal battle involving its owner, AT&T; the previous local family owners who wanted to regain control; and Mormon church officials who wanted to block them and had veto power over a potential sale.

It is clear that The Denver Post is Mr. Singleton's flagship and his first love. This is the paper that, when he bought it 15 years ago, had been hemorrhaging circulation after making a disastrously abrupt move from afternoon to morning publication.

Mr. Singleton has closed two major dailies -- The Fort Worth Press and The Houston Post. He also failed to revive The Dallas Times-Herald, which he sold a few years before it closed in 1991.He was determined to make The Denver Post work. He made himself The Post's publisher earlier this year. He also ousted Glenn Guzzo, the editor who had directed the locally admired coverage of the war against terrorism, in favor of Gregory Moore, the former managing editor of The Boston Globe, which is owned by The New York Times Company.

Mr. Guzzo, a former editor from The Akron Beacon Journal, was not changing things or hiring fast enough for Mr. Singleton, according to people who knew of the two men's discussions. Mr. Moore, by contrast, is fast filling 20 or more vacancies, supporting the same kind of aggressive business coverage that Mr. Guzzo did and ruffling his newsroom by transferring the newspaper's highly popular, experienced religion writer to the obituary desk, saying all reporters should change beats every five years.

Mr. Moore is also working closely with Mr. Singleton, who has not abandoned his passion for local news in his pursuit of national or foreign glory.

" I want to drink fine wines for dinner, but I want bacon and eggs for breakfast," Mr. Singleton said. "If you haven't covered the community and done the bacon-and-eggs news, you've failed your reader."

Knowing that newspapers with strong reputations often rose to their positions under long-serving editors, like Ben Bradlee of The Washington Post, does Mr. Singleton plan to keep Mr. Moore around long enough to remake The Denver Post? Mr. Singleton calls Mr. Moore his "soulmate and partner," which seems a good omen for Mr. Moore's future longevity.

Still, Mr. Singleton has never been known for patience. Mr. Moore spoke last week of his plans to improve The Post's national and regional coverage and its photography and investigative work. At the end, Mr. Moore was asked to name his biggest worry.

"Not having enough time to do everything I want," he said.

© Copyright 2002, The New York Times Company