A New Sheen for Dean

Here's a headline, taken from Jim Romenesko's web site, that I don't think anyone could have imagined a few years ago.

"Ridder: Singleton will be a very good steward of the Merc"

Yes as part of a complicated deal, William Dean Singleton is now an owner of some of the "orphan" papers left over from the big Knight-Ridder yard sale. And maybe he will be a benign and benevolent owner. But the fact that the words "good steward" and Singleton are in the same sentence these days is probably a reflection of both Singleton's evolution and the newspaper industry's devolution.

Not all that long ago, Singleton, whose holdings include the Berkshire Eagle, the Lowell Sun, the North Adams Transcript and the Fitchburg Sentinel & Enterprise, was considered a bottom-line newspaper boss with an unfavorable reptuation. In recent years, he has dramatically rehabilitated that reputation, as this 2003 Columbia Journalism Review profile explains. Here are the nut graphs:

In constructing his empire, Singleton has included a very sharp knife among his tools, and he has used it. In 1975, after a brief, inglorious run, he closed The Fort Worth Press, the city's second daily, which inspired reporters to hurl beer cans at him. In 1981 he gutted the Trenton Times, prompting its editor to tell CJR, "The public has lost a watchdog and gained a bulletin board." In 1995 he shuttered the Houston Post, throwing well over a thousand people out of work and killing a publication that had served the community since 1885. Nor is Singleton known for graceful entrances. When he purchased The Berkshire Eagle in 1995, reporters were given a sheet of paper describing their job status and new salaries. "People were expected to read the paper and put their initials next to the words ‘accept' or ‘reject' on the spot," Stephen Simurda wrote in CJR. "There were virtually no negotiations. This was day one of the Singleton era."

Over the last two years, however, Singleton has undergone a remarkable rise within the industry. He was recently elected chairman of the Newspaper Association of America (NAA), which represents the interests of newspaper owners; he was twice elected to the Associated Press Board of Directors; and in 2001 he received Editor & Publisher's "Publisher of the Year" award, largely on the strength of his work with The Denver Post. Singleton has even begun to speak out against newspaper austerity measures. "Newsroom cost cuts have gone far enough — perhaps too far," he said in a recent speech. "We damaged our franchises in many cases, while Wall Street cheered."

Who is the real Dean Singleton? Is he a mass murderer of newspapers, or is he a man whose hardheaded pragmatism has enabled him, in a difficult period for the industry, to preserve many more newspaper jobs than he has eliminated? "Dean wanted to be the most profitable newspaper publisher there ever was — until he realized that the measurement of a good newspaper publisher isn't his profitability but his journalism," says the longtime Singleton-watcher David M. Cole, editor and publisher of NewsInc., an industry newsletter. "So now all of a sudden Dean has gotten the journalism bug."

Part of Singleton's shinier image can be attributed to his own words and deeds. But part can also be attributed to the fact that the sheen is off some companies -- like the New York Times Co. or Knight Ridder -- that were once considered great or at least good newspaper stewards. In other words, the pack has come back to Singleton a bit.

Singleton's name still gets thrown around in speculation about potential buyers for Pat Purcell's Boston Herald/Community Newspaper Co. empire. And for the record, he was an interested party for the CNC chain when Purcell picked it up in 2001.

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