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Citizen Dean 

Will the Tribune’s new publisher make independent ink or create holy stink?

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When Michael Roberts, a reporter for Denver’s alternative weekly Westword, began his profile of William Dean Singleton more than a year ago, he described a plaque Singleton had on his desk in Denver. It was the “Creed of a Christian” by whose dictates Singleton said he tried his best to live.

Such a plaque would have served as the perfect tool to introduce a story about Singleton and his arrival in Salt Lake City. After all, it was anxiety about religion that served as the backbone of the paranoia that preceded his arrival. Would his own religion teach us anything about the future of The Salt Lake Tribune? Does the presence of the “Creed of the Christian” in his office mean his newspaper will critically analyze the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?

His office on the fourth floor of the Tribune Building downtown is still bare. He said he had another plaque in the Denver office that might help decorate it. It reads: Cash in must exceed cash out. He says he put it up prominently to ensure that his workers would always be reminded of that important principle.

Although he has owned the paper for 21 months, Singleton’s tenure as publisher at the Tribune has only just begun, following a lengthy legal dispute. The Tribune is only the second paper in which his name appears over the title of publisher. Although his company, MediaNews Group Inc., owns 46 other daily papers, only the staff at the Denver Post, and now the Tribune, report directly to him. The rest are subordinate to Singleton’s corporate administrators. He says he is excited about the Tribune—that it is his “crown jewel.”

That pronouncement is only as indicative of the Tribune’s future as the nonexistent plaques on the wall. Many questions came up as Singleton made his way to the management of the Tribune. They are the same questions that have welcomed him to nearly every city he has entered. As have the nicknames: “Little Billy,” “Deano,” “Dinky,” “The Hatchet Man.” How Salt Lake City and the region will suffer or benefit from his influence is anyone’s guess. It’s as much a matter of individual opinion as is the analysis of his own background.

Singleton has attracted curious reporters for many years. And they weren’t just looking for jobs. Not only has he proved to be one of the most successful businessmen in the country, he’s done it all with newspapers. That fact automatically put him on the radar screens of journalists around the country, especially those whose job it is to cover their media counterparts—reporters like Tim Fleck.

Fleck has had an experience many of his fellow reporters only fantasize about. He didn’t win a Pulitzer Prize or confirm an eye-opening scoop. The veteran newsman at one of the largest alternative weekly newspapers in Texas, the Houston Press, simply found himself in a situation fit for a movie scene.

In the spring of 1995, Houston’s second-largest daily newspaper, the Houston Post—which, despite being second, was still much larger than The Salt Lake Tribune—had just closed its doors after more than a century of publishing. And its controversial owner, Dean Singleton, had apparently walked away from the deal an even wealthier man. It was a big story. Especially for Fleck, who covered the local media as part of his beat for the Press.

It was a bizarre story, too. On April 18, 1995, the 1,000 journalists and other employees at the Post had no idea the paper was going to close when it did. A group of reporters was on its way to Central America as part of a comprehensive coverage of the region. Others were filing stories that had been planned to run later in the week. But suddenly, they found they no longer had jobs. The paper was closing and it wouldn’t even publish a good-bye issue. Other media in Houston covered the development thoroughly. It was the talk of the town until two days later, when Timothy McVeigh’s deadly bomb in Oklahoma City killed dozens and the story found its way to the back pages.

Many of the employees, who found themselves out of work so suddenly, were angry. Most of them seemed to blame one man for what happened: Dean Singleton. One of the reporters, Marty Graham, who now works in Southern California, told City Weekly she was glad she never met Singleton personally. “Otherwise, I would be working for a prison newspaper.”

Fleck watched it all transpire and served as the de facto outlet to which the Post’s former employees could vent. Singleton may or may not have deserved the wrath many directed at him. The Post’s cross-town competitor, the Houston Chronicle, had purchased the assets of the decaying Post from Singleton for $120 million. That led astute observers to deduce that he made more than $50 million in the deal that left so many people unemployed. Suddenly, without any competition to speak of, the Houston Chronicle boosted its ad rates 38 percent only weeks after the Post closed. Times were good for the Chronicle and for Singleton.

A couple of months after the sudden demise of the Post, Fleck heard about a gathering in Houston at which Singleton would be speaking. But the press was not allowed into the meeting. Nevertheless, Fleck and his editor, Jim Simmon, hung around the outside of the posh Houston Club where Singleton was making his speech. They somehow found a way to sneak Fleck into a storage closet next to the meeting room. From there, he was able to record the whole speech—even after a food server barged in on him but smiled and went about her business.

It was just like in the movies. He recorded Singleton’s lavish praise of the owners of his supposed onetime competitor, the Chronicle. He called the Chronicle one of the “crown jewels” of American journalism. It seems to be a popular phrase with him. For Fleck and others, his comments to the gathering that day more or less confirmed what they had suspected: Singleton had no real qualms about the demise of the paper he bought. Nor was he worried that the residents of the Houston area had lost something dear.

Seven years later, Fleck still remembers what a bizarre time it was. The media scene in Houston is a much different place now, he says. “The difference is striking. There has been a constant erosion in the quality of local news coverage ever since the Post closed. The Post and the Chronicle used to each have reporters working full-time in the pressrooms at City Hall, at the police station, everywhere. That competition produced so much information that it attracted TV and radio news teams to the stories. Now the pressrooms at the police station and City Hall are vacant ghost towns. Things are very different.”

Singleton often uses sports metaphors to put his experiences and dealings into perspective. When he buys a paper, he describes it as “stepping up to the plate.” When he described his experience in Dallas where he sold the Dallas Times Herald and watched from a distance as it collapsed three years later, he told City Weekly his company “played our money in Dallas and left at halftime because we didn’t think the long-term future was there.”

In Houston, he just struck out. “We took over a newspaper in Houston that had been left for dead years before. Because it had some good demographics, we thought we could turn it around and we made a good seven-and-a-half year run at it. Yeah, we’ve struck out a few times at bat, but we’ve built a company from nothing to the seventh-largest newspaper company in the country.”

It might be interesting then, to look at his first batting coach. Larry Grauerholz has been following the sale of The Salt Lake Tribune as well as anyone could from as far away as Wichita Falls, Texas. Grauerholz, a retired journalist himself, was an editor at the Graham News, in the town of Graham, Texas, when a 15-year-old Dean Singleton walked in looking for a job. Singleton, he says, has been an interesting person to watch. He was very determined, from the beginning, to be a success. And he’s stepped on some people along the way. With that, he refers anyone who cares to a book written in 1993 by Alexander Brook titled The Hard Way: The Odyssey of a Weekly Newspaper Editor.

The book is a good example, Grauerholz says, of what Singleton had to do to make his money. His ambition was evident from the start. “He has proven that he has the ability to oversell himself and then somehow fulfill the bargain. But most of all, he has the ability to get in with the right people.”

The Graham News was the smaller of the two newspapers in Graham at the time. Singleton left the paper after he graduated from high school and followed Grauerholz to a paper in Wichita Falls.

Singleton says that’s when he learned how to be a journalist. “They gave me a pad and a pencil and a Nikon camera and my job was to drive out in a 150-mile radius and find news. That’s all they told me. Once I got the news, I had to take my own photos and drive all the way back to write the story. Just so I could watch [Grauerholz] rip it apart.”

Singleton never finished college and eventually began buying, starting and revitalizing small papers all around Texas—and later, all around the country. By age 27, he had gained enough status to negotiate with the powerhouses of the newspaper-publishing world. Powerhouses who have made it possible for Singleton to make big deals in big cities.

In 1998, the Times-Mirror Corporation, owner of the Los Angeles Times and other media resources, announced that it had loaned Singleton’s MediaNews $50 million to purchase its local competitor, the L.A. Daily News. Although a much smaller paper than the Times, the Daily News’ circulation is larger than The Salt Lake Tribune’s. Times-Mirror had already dealt with Singleton extensively. In 1987, it was Times-Mirror who had sold him the Denver Post—financing that purchase as well. Singleton put up only $25 million to buy the Post and Times-Mirror footed the rest of the price at which the corporation wanted to sell it—which roughly translates to a loan of $70 million. Singleton said his company paid off that loan at a discounted rate for about $44 million. Considering that he spent about $200 million on the Tribune, it was an incredible deal.

In Denver, Times-Mirror just wanted out. But in Los Angeles, it was a different story. As it became more and more apparent that the L.A. Daily News would begin some kind of limited partnership with their flagship paper the Times, Times-Mirror officials hoped to ensure themselves that the Daily News would always be run by somebody with whom they could easily get along. It’s a sentiment that strikes similarities with the situation in Salt Lake City, where the Deseret News continually defended its support of Singleton’s takeover of the Tribune with the same rationale. But the interesting parallels to Salt Lake City don’t end there.

If the Denver Post, the L.A. Daily News and now The Salt Lake Tribune are the “crown jewels” of Singleton’s media empire, Singleton should thank the Times-Mirror corporation. If only because two of those papers fell into his hands as a direct result of the financial partnership he forged with the corporation that once owned the Los Angeles Times. Could the third crown jewel, the Tribune, have also come under the MediaNews umbrella with the help of the same people?

After all, the publisher of the Times, while it was in negotiations with Singleton, was a man named Mark Willes. A corporate general who went to the Times after serving as the vice chairman for General Mills, Willes was known in the Times staff room as “Captain Crunch” and the “Cereal Killer” for controversial measures he took in an attempt to increase profits at the troubled paper. Singleton calls Willes a friend of whom he is “very fond.” Willes is also the nephew of LDS church President Gordon B. Hinckley.

Singleton says Willes had nothing to do with his eventual purchase of the Tribune. “I never discussed Salt Lake with Mark Willes. I know him well. I don’t know if Mark ever had any discussions with the church or not, but I never had any discussions with him.”

Recent revelations in the dispute between the Tribune’s former owners and the Deseret News show that leaders of the LDS church, at the behest of its president, pounced on the 1997 sale of the paper to TCI as an opportunity to change the leadership of the paper, if not inherit it themselves. And it was around that same time that Singleton was in negotiations with Willes to purchase the L.A. Daily News.

Singleton insists he first heard about the opportunity to buy the Tribune in June 2000. “The story has been told 1,000 times. I met Glenn Snarr (publisher of the Deseret News) once before I owned the newspaper. I talked to him on the phone a couple of other times. And I never talked to anyone at the church.”

Singleton says the idea that he was brought here by the church was fomented by some “very nasty, dishonest and arguably insane people.”

Singleton, to be sure, has come across a lot of different people in his time. Very important people at that: legendary Washington Post Publisher Katharine Graham; famed financier Warren Buffet; and being a rich man from west Texas, it was inevitable that he should rank high on President George W. Bush’s list as well. In May, Singleton traveled to Russia with the president on behalf of the Newspaper Association of America (NAA), of which he is the current chairman.

John Sturm, NAA’s CEO, said Singleton was there to advise his Russian counterparts in the newspaper industry and President Vladimir Putin on what it takes to build a strong independent press. Sturm said Singleton was an old friend of the president and a person Bush was excited to take along. “Dean’s leadership in this regard and his dedication to this particular project was fabulous. The president was quite effusive of his praise and appreciation for Dean.”

Former employees are more restrained with their praise of Singleton. Neil Westergaard was working for the Denver Post in 1987 when Singleton took the paper over. Westergaard said résumés went “flying out of the place” as anxious reporters and editors indulged their paranoia of what things would be like working for the Hatchet Man. “A lot of people left. But a lot stayed, including me, and it was the right decision.”

Westergaard, who later served as interim editor of the Post for two years, said that Singleton managed to do what nobody thought was possible: Turn around a declining Denver Post and make it the dominant daily in Colorado. “He deserves credit for that. He had help. But he made some incredibly smart decisions and in the end, he was able to provide a news product for less money. In the newspaper war here, that was all that mattered. In the end, it was who had the most money in the bank.”

In 1991, Westergaard became an executive editor at the Post and later he moved into the No. 1 spot after one of the many leadership changes that took place over the last decade. He said he didn’t see much of his boss, although Singleton took on a more hands-on management style after Westergaard left in 1996.

But the occasional phone call did come in. Westergaard remembers one instance in particular. In 1993, when Israel’s President Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shook hands in front of the U.S. President Bill Clinton after the signing of the Oslo accords, the Denver Post, like most papers in the world, ran a front-page photo of it. Singleton called Westergaard to complain. “We don’t sell papers in Jerusalem,” he said.

Singleton says that comment was a manifestation of a principle he holds to dearly even today. “It’s something I’ve said many times. A routine story about peace talks in Israel that are five weeks old isn’t going to attract a reader in Denver on Monday morning, especially when he saw it all on television the day before. Running an international story from the wire just because you have no local news is a cop-out. If you can’t bring it home to the local reader, don’t showcase it.”

Singleton says it’s all a part of a larger philosophy about what local newspapers should be. That he didn’t want to give his front page to one of the most notable photographs of the 20th century because it was an international story, may seem to conflict with the fact that just last year, the Denver Post sent 14 people to cover the war in Afghanistan.

The difference between those stories, Singleton says, is the essence of what his papers should be doing. “You need to define local news as not just those things that occur in your local market, but as those things that uniquely affect your local market. We went to Afghanistan to bring the war home the way Coloradoans could see it. You aren’t going to build a great newspaper running stories from the AP wire.”

Westergaard says he doesn’t regret working for Singleton at all. But it was a struggle. “There was a constant attention to the bottom line. Everybody is on a trial run under Dean, I don’t care what their title is.”

And that caused a lot of resentment. Roberts, the media reporter at Westword, said Singleton did, indeed, turn around the Denver Post. “It had a good chance of folding when he took it over, but he cut costs, kept salaries low. And soon, the Post ended up as the dominant paper in Denver.”

Its competitor, The Rocky Mountain News, ended up receiving the designation as the weaker of the two papers when they both entered into a joint-operating agreement—the same type of agreement that binds the Deseret News to The Salt Lake Tribune.

After his initial successes at the Post, Singleton emerged as an even more prominent figure nationwide. Roberts said that he still wasn’t entirely trusted. “Some people regard him as the worst thing to happen to newspapers in the history of the press. But in Denver, he’s made an attempt to rehabilitate that image and put out a good newspaper.”

From the looks of things, it seems to have worked. The industry magazine Editor and Publisher recently named him “Publisher of the Year” for the dramatic turnaround he sparked at the Denver Post. Salt Lake Tribune Editor James E. (Jay) Shelledy calls the Denver Post “a damn good newspaper.”

Singleton says he has plans to open more foreign bureaus run by the Post—including one in Jerusalem. “We saved the Denver Post. We took it off its deathbed. And many of the things we’re doing in Denver will translate into positives for Salt Lake City, as well.”

Shelledy spent three days at Singleton’s Colorado ranch when it became a reality that MediaNews was going to start managing the Tribune this summer. Afterward, they both announced that Shelledy would stay on as the leader of the newsroom when Singleton grabbed the reins.

Singleton says he made the logical decision. “I could have easily brought in a really strong editor from the outside with a strong reputation who would have accomplished all of the same things I have planned. But if I would have brought somebody in from the outside, it would have likely been somebody who didn’t understand Utah or Salt Lake City and the unique issues that come up here. Jay’s got 11 years on the ground understanding the market.”

Singleton’s proud that he kept Shelledy. It was a decision he trumpeted proudly to the most disaffected Utahns. After hundreds of readers canceled their subscriptions to the paper in the wake of the takeover, Singleton sent them all a form letter imploring them to change their minds. None of their favorite parts about the Tribune will change, he wrote. Popular columnists Rolly & Wells and Robert Kirby weren’t going anywhere. Shelledy would remain in charge. The letter promised that someone would call the former Tribune readers personally from his office to answer any questions they might have about the changes at the paper.

Changes that, he said, will be nothing but good. “This newspaper hasn’t been run by an ownership with a passion for good newspapers in decades. Dominic Welch (the previous publisher of the Tribune) wouldn’t know a news story if it hit him in the face. This newspaper has done some good things and had some fairly bright moments, but what we want to do is make it consistently good.”

He insisted that the Tribune send a permanent reporter to file stories from Washington, D.C. Shelledy announced Aug. 25 that veteran reporter Christopher Smith was on his way. Singleton said he wanted to add eight reporters. Shelledy said they’ve filled the positions. They weren’t new jobs, just ones that hadn’t been filled while the paper was in limbo. Shelledy also reported that money had been made available to give raises to most of the more than 140 workers in the newsroom.

Singleton says the Tribune can’t accomplish what he imagines if he doesn’t let the resources trickle down from the top. “A good newspaper has to start at the ownership. The owners have to provide money to do some of the things you want to do. And it has to provide the space and a backbone to do things even when the heat’s on.”

What about heat from the LDS church? In his letter to the disillusioned subscribers, Singleton wrote that the Tribune would not change anything about its coverage of the church. Stories about things like polygamy, the Mountain Meadows Massacre and the purchase of a block of Salt Lake City’s Main Street would have appeared in his paper, he said. Shelledy was the editor for those stories and he is still the editor now. Therefore, Singleton told City Weekly, it would be ludicrous to think anything will change. “There are no sacred cows at the Tribune,” he said. “None whatsoever.”

Shelledy agreed. “My staying on was conditional on some things and one of those is that I run the newsroom. Our coverage of the LDS church has been as fair as it has been inclusive. And the coverage will continue to be fair and inclusive.”

Shelledy said that when he started at the Tribune in 1991, the paper was reluctant to write anything at all about the LDS church. The words “Deseret News” weren’t even allowed to make it to print.

When he changed the policy, Shelledy said the paper would cover the church, but it wouldn’t disparage the leaders or the religion just because they are Mormon. “We’ve never criticized a leader of the LDS church. But when the church acts in the secular arena, it affects everyone and they get the same scrutiny as everyone else. Their involvement with the Main Street deal was a secular act, as was their involvement with the Olympics.”

Shelledy said he can’t imagine the Denver Post ever “shirking” from issues, so no one should expect anything different from the Tribune. Singleton says he hopes to transform the Tribune, just like he did with the Post. And money will be the key. “You can’t be a journalistic success unless you are a financial success. The failures we’ve had along the way—and I’ve had my share—always came when ‘cash in’ did not exceed ‘cash out.’”

Asked how he thought Singleton’s presence would influence Salt Lake City, the Denver Post’s former editor Westergaard laughed. It will be imperceptible by the general public, he said. “No one person exerts that much influence on a community—even the owner of the major newspaper. I spent a couple of years outside of the newspaper business. And I learned that ordinary people are not as influenced by the paper as anybody in the newspaper believes. People’s lives are not revolving around the newspaper in the way that reporters tend to think.”

If that’s the case, it will certainly add a little humility to those who prophesied doom for freethinking Utahns if Singleton ever gained control of their prized paper. As it is, his new “crown jewel” hangs prominently on an impressive newspaper necklace. He says he has no plans to take it to the pawn shop.

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