William Dean Singleton has been called many nasty things over the years: miserly, greedy, inhumane. But the cofounder, chief executive, and driving force behind the Denver-based MediaNews empire is serious about his faith. He displays the "Creed of a Christian" prominently in his office atop the building of his flagship paper, The Denver Post, and says he does his best to live by its dictates. Maybe that's why on Good Friday 2001, while most of America had its nose to the grindstone, Singleton's co-workers were busy recreating.
All but the boss. Stuck in town due to a legal squabble, Singleton couldn't keep away from company headquarters. "I don't have a hobby," the married father of three explained. "I don't play golf. I don't take long vacations. I'm just all consumed with newspapers."
So he spent that holiday in the empty MediaNews suite, disturbed by little more than a nettlesome reporter and the occasional phone call. At one point a Post columnist called because he'd lost his W-2 and needed another - a laughably trivial query for a captain of finance, but Singleton handled it without complaint. Moments later, the phone jangled again with bigger news. Singleton exchanged a few brief words with the caller before hanging up. "I just bought another paper," he said.
He said it the way most people would talk about purchasing a three-pack of underwear, which said less about the acquisition - Ruidoso News, a New Mexico daily - than the world Singleton runs in. Although the media magnate likes to present himself as a regular guy, and described his then-upcoming fiftieth birthday party as just a little get-together with old friends, the details put things in perspective: He'd tried to book the Eagles, but they had a conflict, so he had to make do with Michael Martin Murphey, the Fifth Dimension, and the Four Tops.
Asked whether fifty held any special significance, Singleton said not really. But some of his remarks indicated otherwise. His rationale for forging a joint operating agreement between his beloved Denver Post and its archrival Rocky Mountain News suggested that Singleton was yearning for a little journalistic respect. "The Post today is a good newspaper, not a great newspaper," he said. "I knew that I could never spend enough to make it great while the newspaper war was going on. And I didn't want my kids to make it a great newspaper. I want to make it a great newspaper.
"I'm going to be fifty, and I do have some health issues," he went on, referring to the multiple sclerosis with which he's dealt for many years. "But I expect to live a long time, and I wanted to get on with my life."
Such pronouncements couldn't be further from the image painted by his many detractors, who accuse Singleton of, among other sins, favoring cut-rate journalism. In their view, he is largely culpable for the deaths of two major metropolitan dailies - the Dallas Times Herald and the Houston Post - and a decline in quality at many others in his portfolio. He's concerned only with the bottom line, they say, and doesn't care about the jobs he's eliminated, the salaries he's reduced, the benefits he's sliced, or the lives he's affected for the worse. They offer plenty of evidence to back up these claims.
"Newspapers are not a growth business," Singleton said. "If all I was interested in was a return in capital, I'd sell the company and put my money somewhere else. But that's not why we're here. We're here because we want to be here, and we do what we do because we want to do it. It has nothing to do with dollars and cents except that dollars and cents keep the engine running - and you've got to keep the engine running. I've told our folks many times: You can go down with the ship, but you still went down."
Whether due to his growing empire, or the increased ruthlessness of the media industry as a whole, the man who just purchased The Contra Costa Times, San Jose Mercury News, and a bevy of smaller Bay Area papers has experienced a reputation upgrade in recent years. In 2000, Forbes called him "the notorious bad boy of cheapskate publishing" - a fairly standard description. But in April 2001, Editor & Publisher magazine named him publisher of the year in a respectful, even laudatory article. Cover boy Singleton stood with his arm around a cow, looking uncomfortable in Western duds that appeared fresh off the rack, when, in fact, he was reared on a Texas ranch.
One of five children - an older brother died in a car crash at 21 - Singleton was precocious and entrepreneurial from early on, his elder sister Pat recalled. He also loved newspapers, which he viewed as a link to the outside world. At fifteen, he applied to the Graham News and wound up as sports editor for the tiny Texas weekly. The lad loved his duties and happily worked himself to exhaustion - which is perhaps one reason he doesn't view job conditions that others revile as anything to gripe about.
After finishing high school in 1969, he landed a job at the Wichita Falls Times Record News, which sent him driving around to far-flung small towns in search of news. This led to his first big story when a local congressman told a meeting of area Democrats in Quanah, Texas, that the oil depletion allowance, an important tax break for Texas drillers, was about to be axed. "That got picked up nationally," Singleton said, still savoring the scoop.
Singleton progressed to other writing and editing stints. Then in 1972, before he turned 21, a couple of Graham businesspeople came to him with a proposal. They wanted Singleton to start a paper to compete with the Graham Leader, which the powers that were perceived as antigrowth. The young man secured a $10,000 loan for his share and launched the Clarendon Press, which "just kicked ass," he said. "We put out a really good newspaper. I got a couple of kids out of college to help write news and covered real stories. The Leader was primarily an editorial page with a lot of chicken-dinner news, but we put out a real newspaper."
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