By Steve Hamm William Dean Singleton has long been denounced within the newspaper industry as a rapacious bottom feeder who buys troubled papers, slashes costs, and foists lousy products on defenseless subscribers. He was once pelted with beer cans by irate reporters at one of his papers. Well, a strange thing has happened in an industry beset by declining circulation and fierce competition on the Internet. This black sheep is an emerging leader in the fight to save newspapering.
His ruthless efficiency is now seen by many as a necessity for newspapers. Also, he's pulling together some of the industry's top players to take the offensive on the Web. One example: a content-sharing and advertising alliance with Web giant Yahoo! involving 18 newspaper companies. "We have to collaborate now. No one newspaper group can get to the other side of the river alone," says Singleton, 56, whose voice still retains some of the twang of his youth in hardscrabble Graham, Tex., where he got his start at the age of 15 as a part-time reporter.
Once a ragtag band of small-town newspapers, Singleton's MediaNews Group has grown into the nation's fourth-largest chain, measured by circulation. The privately held, Denver-based outfit now operates 57 daily newspapers including the Denver Post, the Daily News (Los Angeles), the Salt Lake City Tribune, and the San Jose Mercury News, with a combined daily circulation of 2.6 million, revenues last fiscal year of $1.33 billion, and net income of $35 million.
CLUSTERING TO SHARE COSTS. These days, Singleton has plenty of admirers—some of them in surprising places. Robert N. Giles, curator of Harvard University's Nieman Foundation, says "His reputation has been enhanced, and it has been enhanced out of performance. His bigger papers are doing well journalistically." Not all journalists agree with that. "He's shrewd. But you have to have shrewdness and journalistic passion to create really outstanding journalism, and I wish I saw more journalistic passion there," says Larry Jinks, a former publisher of the San Jose Mercury News who is on the board of the McClatchy newspaper chain.
Key to MediaNews' strategy is "clustering" newspapers within geographic areas so they can share costs and sell regional advertising. The San Francisco Bay area cluster that the Mercury News is part of consists of seven daily papers that are consolidating printing plants, administrative operations, and reporting and editing staffs. One reporter covers the Oakland Raiders football team for several of the papers, for instance. In the 2007 fiscal year, when revenues for the cluster declined by $39 million, to $478 million, the company was able to make up the difference through consolidation savings and other cost-cutting measures. "It turns out that in our era, these operational skills are essential to survival," says George Riggs, who heads MediaNews' California operations.
COMMON CAUSE FOR NEWS GIANTS. Singleton's image as a pariah began to change about the same time the industry went into its tailspin. In 2004, Singleton sought out Yahoo's then-chief executive, Terry Semel, and mapped a wide-ranging partnership. After getting things going, Singleton quickly recruited other newspaper groups to join. "He showed us the way," says Lincoln Millstein, director of digital media for Hearst Newspapers. The alliance now includes posting newspaper recruitment advertising on Yahoo's jobs site, cross-selling Yahoo and newspaper advertising, embedding Yahoo paid search in the newspaper Web sites, and running newspaper stories on Yahoo's sports, news, and finance sites. Advertising revenues are shared.
The Yahoo deal was just the beginning of Singleton's campaign to give news giants common cause. He's in the early stages of building national online "marketplaces" where he hopes the industry will team up to present an array of stories, ads, and e-commerce on particular topics—be it pets or skiing. Other Web sites address particular interests, but none has the combined might of an entire industry behind it. Says Singleton, "I'm optimistic. I'm not blindly optimistic. But I believe we can do this." Hamm is a senior writer for BusinessWeek in New York