MediaNews’ Busted Newspaper Bets

The Times has a nice story on Dean Singleton’s MediaNews and the problems it’s facing in this atrocious time for newspapers.

“In retrospect, the timing was not good,” said Mr. Singleton, the head of and a major shareholder in the company, which is privately held. “But in our business, you buy newspapers when they’re for sale. If we could have foreseen the current economic downturn in the state, it might have changed our views, but we couldn’t foresee that.”

It was hardly a minority opinion at the time that MediaNews and others were overpaying for papers. But what did that matter when “in our business, you buy newspapers when they’re for sale”? Get this guy his own Welch/Iacocca-style business how-to book!

Singleton is known for being a staff cutter, but in fairness, it seems like it would have been hard not to gut the San Jose Mercury News with numbers like these:

At the peak of the dot-com boom, The Mercury News had more than $100 million a year in help-wanted classified ads; this year, executives say, the figure will be around $10 million.

Still, the Times report shows that MediaNews has underinvested in the paper’s Web site, which is an area whose readership is more Web-savvy than any other.

Mr. Butler, the editor, said that with money tight, Web improvements have to wait. “Until or unless we see that those things pay for themselves, we make a serious mistake in focusing too much on that,” he said.

Lots of businesses don’t pay for themselves on day one. That’s no excuse not to try.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.