Exit interview

A news guy meets a deadline

(Image courtesy of The Denver Post)

William Dean Singleton stepped down as chairman of MediaNews Group in December after decades at the helm of America’s second-largest newspaper empire, which he founded in 1983 with the late Richard B. Scudder. He’s staying on as non-executive chairman of The Denver Post. Singleton, 62, has been a polarizing figure in the industry. He first made a name for himself by buying small, struggling newspapers and ruthlessly cutting costs to turn them around. He’s had beer cans hurled at him by angry reporters, but he’s also held esteemed positions at The Associated Press and the Newspaper Association of America. Singleton bought his first newspaper when he was 21. Forty-one years and dozens of newspapers later, he spoke with CJR’s Noah Hurowitz to reflect on his reign and legacy.

You’ve received a lot of criticism over the years, particularly from inside newsrooms. Do you think your work has been misunderstood by your critics?
I can’t speak for my critics. We started with one newspaper in New Jersey and built it into the second-largest newspaper company in the country. We pioneered clustering and used consolidated plants and operations before others were doing that. So because we were the first to do it, I probably got more criticism than most, and, you know, today everybody’s doing it. We bought a lot of newspapers that were losing money that would not have survived had we not put them together in clusters.

How do you respond to critics who say your cost-saving methods harmed the journalistic community?
I don’t believe that. Our company has won many journalistic awards for reporting. The Denver Post is the only paper other than The New York Times that has won Pulitzer Prizes four years in a row. Most people who are critical probably haven’t read the newspapers.

In an interview with CJR in March 2003, you said “I’m not a money guy.” What has been your driving motivation?
Well, I’m a news guy. I started out a news guy and I’m still a news guy. My partner for all these years, who passed away last year, was a news guy. But we understood that you cannot be an artistic success if you’re not a financial success. A newspaper must be a business, and we’ve always recognized that. But we were a business in order to have a newspaper, not a newspaper in order to have a business.

MediaNews Group has shown a tenacious loyalty to print media. What is the future of the print newspaper in the digital era?
We are very loyal to our print newspapers. And our loyalty has everything to do with the fact that print still delivers 80 percent of our revenue. And when you’re getting 80 percent of your revenue from print, then you damn well better be loyal to your print newspapers. Most of the investment going forward will be in digital products, because that’s where the world is going to be. But it’s imperative to continue to be loyal to print. That is our past, it’s most of our present, but it’s not our future.

What’s next for you?
My first love in life was newspapering, where I started when I was 15, and bought a lot of newspapers. And my second love is ranching, and I’ve bought a lot of ranches and I’m in the ranching business. And my third love in life is wine, and so maybe I’ll buy a winery. I’m very happy with the last 40 years, and whatever critics say or don’t say, I’m very proud of what we’ve done, but I’m looking forward to doing the next chapter with my grown children and my grandchildren and living a little more leisurely, and watching those who follow me successfully change the industry that I love.

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Noah Hurowitz is a CJR intern