Lean Dean finalizing deal for Pi Press

Categories: Media
Reuters and the San Jose Mercury News reported over the weekend that MediaNews is in final negotiations to purchase four former Knight Ridder papers, including the Pioneer Press.


The good news? MediaNews is a privately held company, meaning it's not beholden to greedy stockholders demanding outlandish profit margins, as was the case under Knight Ridder.

The bad news? The Denver-based newspaper chain is run by William Dean Singleton. Unflatteringly known as "Lean Dean," Singleton has accrued a deserved reputation over the last three decades for decimating and destroying newspapers.

For an excellent primer on Singleton see this 2003 profile from the Columbia Journalism Review. Although it's now three years old, the article, written by Scott Sherman, contains numerous illuminating anecdotes.

The following paragraph, for instance, does a pretty good job of summarizing what Pi Press staff-ers have to look forward to:

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."


Further down in the piece are a few more choice details on how Singleton handled the Houston Post situation:

In September 1987, he stunned the newspaper world by announcing two major acquisitions--the Houston Post and The Denver Post. Houston was the reverse of Dallas, Singleton says, "a white-collar paper in a blue-collar market," but the Sunday edition was similarly weak.


Eight years later, in 1995, Singleton sold the assets of the Houston Post to its main competitor, Hearst, publisher of the dominant Houston Chronicle, for $120 million. The Houston Post was a corpse. Employees of the Post were enraged, and have remained so ever since; today they refer to him as "Stinky Singleton." In a scorching letter published in CJR, the former assistant editorial page editor, Charles Reinken, noted that for 111 years, the Post "printed the news, got a few rascals thrown out, earned a Pulitzer along the way, conceded nothing to the competition, and showed great heart . . . . Singleton killed it without even the decency of a farewell edition--a death without a funeral."


Then there's this reassuring graf detailing Singleton's treatment of workers:

Sean Holstege, a reporter and union officer at The Oakland Tribune, claims that Singleton's Northern California papers average a 30 percent turnover rate. Many reporters earn as little as $26,000. "I know employees who skip meals," says Holstege. "I know employees who have slept in cars until they found affordable housing. I know one person who got pregnant and was weeping when she found out. She had no idea how she would pay for it."


Sherman makes a half-hearted case that by 2003 Singleton's unswerving emphasis on profits over journalism had shifted. His stewardship of the Denver Post, where newsroom staffing has grown along with the profits, is cited as proof of this change of philosophy. But even if he has softened a bit over the years, the evidence seems quite overwhelming that Lean Dean has done more than enough to justify his nickname.


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