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There Are Two Sides to This Publisher’s Story

Times Staff Writer

When Denver press baron William Dean Singleton bought the Long Beach Press-Telegram just before Christmas in 1997, he gave everyone in the newsroom 15 minutes to re-interview for their jobs.

Feature writer Debbie Arrington, who had followed her father and grandmother onto the newspaper’s payroll and never planned to work anywhere else, was stunned.

“Your job is on the line, and you had to make an instant impression that you were worth keeping,” Arrington recalled. “The older copy editors who went through the process, they all felt like they were being sent to the glue factory.”

Arrington survived the culling only to see the paper’s pay, benefits and morale fall sharply. She left after a year.

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But even as the newsroom ranks thinned and circulation stalled at about 100,000, the Press-Telegram’s profitability soared, according to Executive Editor Rich Archbold, producing a handsome return for Singleton’s MediaNews Group Inc., now the nation’s seventh-largest newspaper chain, with daily circulation of 1.8 million.

Singleton’s presence in California is felt beyond Long Beach. His company owns the Daily News in the San Fernando Valley as well as a raft of smaller papers in the Bay Area and the Inland Empire. All told, MediaNews sells about 900,000 papers a day in the Golden State -- more than any other company.

Last week he emerged as a likely bidder for at least some of the 12 papers that McClatchy Co. of Sacramento plans to sell as part of its acquisition of Knight Ridder Inc. The dozen include the San Jose Mercury News, the Monterey County Herald and the Contra Costa Times, which have a combined daily circulation of about 480,000.

Singleton has toured the Mercury News and the Philadelphia Inquirer -- another of the Knight Ridder papers McClatchy plans to unload -- and is known to be particularly interested in the Contra Costa paper.

Analysts said a price tag that would probably exceed $1 billion could dissuade Singleton from bidding for all 12 papers.

“It would be tough” for him to raise that much money, veteran industry analyst John Morton said. On Tuesday, a McClatchy spokeswoman said the papers were unlikely to be sold to a single buyer.

Singleton’s interest in the Knight Ridder papers has rekindled a debate over his attitude toward a business whose practitioners often see themselves as serving interests other than the shareholders’. Critics say his growing empire bleeds newspapers of money and talent, all but stealing their souls to pump up profit.

“The way Dean Singleton approaches the bottom line can be a real detriment to quality journalism,” said Diane Brooks, who worked for him in the Bay Area and is now a reporter with the Seattle Times.

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Yet to hear Singleton and his top editors tell it, he is simply practicing tough love in an industry badly in need of a dose of reality. In an era when newspapers are losing readers and advertisers to the Internet, Singleton has taken big risks by buying papers no one else wanted, then using drastic measures to make them profitable.

If some of the patients have died on the operating table -- the once-proud Dallas Times Herald and Houston Post among them -- the surgeon says he shouldn’t be faulted for trying.

“It hasn’t been about the money,” Singleton, 54, said last week in the mild drawl left over from his small-town Texas childhood. “This is what I like to do. This is my passion.”

And Singleton contends that he does care about quality journalism -- or at least his definition of it. He just believes that turning a reasonable profit comes first and that the most expensive and ambitious stories generally belong in the biggest papers, which should have the most money to spend.

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“You can’t generalize on ‘the quality’ without understanding the market that the newspaper is supposed to serve,” Singleton said. “What we try to do in every market is edit a newspaper that fits the market it serves.”

Singleton himself may be of two minds on the matter. By some accounts, there has long been a hidden tension between the business mogul known for cutting budgets and the inner journalist who, as a 6-year-old, would wander into the pressroom of the tiny paper in Graham, Texas, to mooch a candy bar or a Coke.

He loved newspapers “like some kids love trains or cowboys,” said Dave Burgin, who met Singleton three decades ago and served as his top editor at several papers. “Here he is an adult, and he hasn’t changed in any way. The guy is just a total newspaper freak.”

The son of a hardscrabble oil-field worker, Singleton became a newsman early, writing sports for the local paper at 15. While attending junior college in East Texas, he worked as a night city editor at the Tyler Morning Telegraph -- displaying talent that someday could have taken him to the top editing ranks of the New York Times, according to then-colleague Randy Harvey, incoming sports editor at the Los Angeles Times.

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But Singleton was already thinking about moving from the newsroom to the executive suite. He’d exhibited a knack for business early in life. At the age of 8, looking to build his door-to-door greeting card sales, he asked the distributor for credit so he could expand his inventory. He got it.

After college and a number of small newspaper deals, Singleton joined other investors in 1975 and tried to revive the Fort Worth Press, which had just folded. The venture lasted just three months before it collapsed. The staff threw beer cans at him as he explained the failure -- which decimated his personal finances because he had taken out personal loans to fund his part of the venture.

Moving east, he bought and managed papers for the Texan owner of the Washington Star, then struck a partnership with newsprint manufacturer Richard Scudder and began buying for himself again. The pair founded MediaNews in 1983, and each man’s family owns about 45% of the private company, which reported $779 million in sales last year. With no publicly held stock, MediaNews has avoided the kind of pressure from impatient investors that forced Knight Ridder to the auction block.

Early on, Singleton adopted the strategy of “clustering” -- buying several papers in the same area so they could share production facilities, ad sales staffs and even news-gathering resources.

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Singleton brought that game plan to the San Francisco suburbs in 1985 when he bought a string of four papers now called Alameda Newspaper Group. He combined newsrooms, often putting a single staffer on a story that would appear in multiple papers. When he acquired the failing Oakland Tribune in 1992, Singleton cut most of the paper’s 600 jobs.

“Before Singleton, [the paper] had a very local focus,” said Elihu Harris, who was Oakland mayor when the Tribune changed hands. “Under Singleton, it became just a corporate communication vehicle. It was understaffed, I think the writers were underpaid and it became less well informed.

“I’d like to have someone who really cares about the community,” said Harris, who was the subject of occasional unflattering editorials in the Singleton-owned Tribune.

At the Bay Area papers, Singleton “cut too close to the bone, and they found it difficult to do quality journalism,” said Dennis Britton, a former top Denver Post editor. “They found it difficult to do any journalism.”

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Singleton later used the clustering strategy when he acquired the Press-Telegram, the Daily News and several smaller papers east of Los Angeles, including the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin in Ontario, the San Bernardino Sun and the Redlands Daily Facts.

But the suburbs were never going to be enough for Singleton. “The idea of being from Graham, Texas, coming from nothing and cracking the club -- that means a lot to him,” Burgin said.

In the space of two years, as the newspaper industry suffered a dip in fortunes during the late 1980s, Singleton bought the No. 2 papers in Dallas, Houston and Denver.

The Texas venture was a disaster. Bought for $110 million in 1986, the Dallas Times Herald was pared down, sold to a Singleton associate and shut down in 1991. After paying about $150 million for the Houston Post, Singleton shuttered it without notice in 1995 at a cost of more than 1,000 jobs, selling the assets to crosstown rival Hearst Corp. for $120 million.

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His $95-million purchase of the money-losing Denver Post in 1987 has fared much better.

Sleeping as few as four hours a night, “he basically turned the Denver Post around,” analyst John Morton said. “And he did it by making it a better paper than it had been even under Times Mirror,” then the owner of the Los Angeles Times.

In a classic newspaper war with E.W. Scripps Co.'s Rocky Mountain News, Singleton moved his corporate headquarters to Denver, matched the News’ penny-a-day subscription promotion and cut ad rates steeply. The News essentially sued for peace in 2000, paying Singleton $60 million to enter a joint operating agreement. Since then, the two sides have shared production costs and split profit but run their own newsrooms.

Rather than follow his usual cost-cutting strategy, Singleton has used profit from the Post to beef up news coverage. An analysis by the Denver Business Journal concluded that the News spent $21 million on newsroom operations in 2004; Singleton invested $27.5 million. In 2000, the Post won Singleton his first and only Pulitzer Prize -- for staff coverage of the Columbine High School shootings.

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Some theorize that Singleton, who collected about $1.6 million last year in salary and other compensation, has doted on the Post because he lives in the Denver area and wants to look good in his hometown. Others suggest that he became more concerned about his journalistic legacy after he was diagnosed with the nerve disease multiple sclerosis. But that was 20 years ago, and he describes his chronic illness simply as an “irritant” that mainly keeps him from skiing.

Former colleagues say the years in Denver taught Singleton that good journalism sells papers and makes newspaper companies worth more when they’re sold.

On an operating basis -- which doesn’t include such charges as interest payments on corporate debt -- MediaNews gets about as much profit from each dollar of sales as the rest of the newspaper industry, about 20%, Singleton said.

“Looking around,” said longtime Singleton editor Charles Cooper, now of the Newhouse family’s Newark Star-Ledger, “he buys the notion that a quality franchise is more valuable than a mediocre franchise.”

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Singleton himself says simply that bigger newspapers should cover bigger issues. And unlike many of his peers, he remains devoted to print journalism, even in the face of the online onslaught that has caused significant circulation losses at papers around the country -- including some of his own.

“I’m a traditionalist,” he said. “My first love is ink on paper.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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Newspaperman

William Dean Singleton

* Age: 54 (born Aug. 1, 1951, in Graham, Texas)

* Title: Chief Executive of MediaNews Group Inc.

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* Home: Englewood, Colo.

* Education: Attended University of Texas at Arlington

* Family: Married with two sons and a daughter.

*

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MediaNews Group Inc.

* Founded: 1983

* Headquarters: Denver

* Properties: Forty daily newspapers, including the Daily News, Long Beach Press-Telegram, Pasadena Star-News and San Bernardino Sun; four radio stations; one TV station

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* 2005 Revenue: $779 million

* 2005 Net income: $40 million

Sources: MediaNews Group, Times research

Los Angeles Times

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