The morning after - Page 2

While drunk on big newspaper purchases, Dean Singleton promised competitive papers and no layoffs. Now he's swinging the ax, cutting deals with Hearst, and decimating local news coverage
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She also revealed the contents of letters written in March and April by company executives: "Hearst and MediaNews will enter into agreements to offer national advertising and internet advertising sales for their Bay Area newspapers on a joint basis, and to consolidate the Bay Area distribution networks of such newspapers, all on mutually satisfactory terms and conditions, and in each case subject to any limitation required to ensure compliance with applicable law." (For more extensive information on the ruling and related coverage, see www.sfbg.com.)
For those who regard newspapers as more of a public trust than an engine for deep profits, the future is starting to look a bit unsettling.
When Singleton expanded his control over the Bay Area threefold last summer, he temporarily quelled some discontent by assuring skeptics that there were no planned changes in staffing and salaries as a result of the transactions.
"We're looking forward to doing a lot of good things here in Northern California," Singleton told San Jose Mercury News staffers, according to the paper's story on the buyout.
But employees at the papers still had every reason to be nervous about Singleton's $1 billion takeover of the Contra Costa Times, the Mercury News, and other papers from the Sacramento-based McClatchy Co.
MediaNews already owned the Oakland Tribune, the San Mateo County Times, and the Marin Independent Journal among others in California before it carved excess properties out of McClatchy, which had grown too large following its purchase of the Knight Ridder chain earlier this year.
The purchases allowed Singleton to seize almost complete control of 14 metropolitan and suburban media markets. The only remaining daily print competitor in the Bay Area was the Chronicle and its parent company, the Hearst Corp., which subsequently purchased $300 million in MediaNews stock, a deal the feds are still investigating. When the transaction with Hearst was finalized, top executives at MediaNews were collectively awarded about $2 million in bonuses.
Some profiles of Singleton have depicted him as a good old-fashioned newspaper journalist, but knowing his cost-cutting reputation, only a fool would assume there were no plans to consolidate major operating functions to save money regardless of any promises made. Singleton has always been more about business than news.
Clustered ownership and shared management were prominent features of the company that MediaNews presented to investors at a Deutsche Bank "Global High Yield" conference in October. An April letter that reappeared in federal court last week during a hearing in Reilly's suit confirmed that MediaNews and Hearst hoped to shed costs by possibly combining circulation and advertising operations.
Layoffs are also a big part of Singleton's MO. Respected but tough Contra Costa Times editor Chris Lopez was let go in October because he'd become "redundant," according to a memo company executive John Armstrong sent to employees.
"That came as a shock to a lot of people in the newsroom," one source at the paper told the Guardian. Known for handing cash rewards out of his wallet to reporters who nailed concise stories for the front page, Lopez had attempted to play down Singleton's reputation when the purchases were announced. Lopez had been at the paper for more than six years and had helped earn Singleton a Pulitzer Prize during a six-year stint at the company's flagship Denver Post, received for its coverage of the Columbine shootings.
"In better times, we might have found a way to ignore an extra position or two or even three," Armstrong wrote in the memo.
Lopez insisted to the Guardian in a phone interview that he had proposed his own termination to ease anticipated cuts elsewhere.
"My layoff from the paper was not unexpected," Lopez said. "It caught the staff off guard, but I saw it coming. I made the recommendation.

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