Who is the real Dean Singleton? Is he a mass murderer of newspapers, or is he a man whose hardheaded personal pragmatism has enabled him, in a difficult period for the industry, to preserve many more newspaper jobs than he has eliminated?
That question, posed by the Columbia Journalism Review in a March 2003 profile of the media mogul, became of immediate concern to the metro area last week when it was announced that Singletons Denver-based MediaNews Group, the seventh largest newspaper group in the United States, acquired The Detroit News.
Ben Burns, head of the Wayne State journalism department and former News executive editor, says that earlier in his career, Singleton, 54, was viewed much like Gannett, the company set to assume control of the Free Press and pass ownership of The News on to Singletons outfit.
Early on some people thought he was pretty brutal, Burns says. He was seen as someone who would come in and cut costs by chopping staff, someone who would make a newspaper profitable by chopping off body parts.
But in recent years, that reputation has been changing.
William Dean Singleton began working at newspapers while still a teenager in Texas and bought his first paper at the tender age of 21. Now hes CEO of a privately held company that owns some 50 daily newspapers and more than 120 non-daily papers in 12 states.
Michael Roberts, media writer for the alternative weekly Westword in Denver, noted in a long profile that Singleton is experiencing a reputation upgrade.
In 2001, Editor & Publisher magazine named him publisher of the year, in large part because of the way he rejuvenated the failing Denver Post.
In a January 2004 profile, American Journalism Review quoted Singleton as saying: On the East Coast newspapers are much more hard-hitting, more inclined to do investigations than newspapers in the heartland. I thought we owed it to Colorado to give it that kind of newspaper.
That same profile also offers up a quote that Singleton uttered four years earlier, when he told a trade publication: We, as an industry, got carried away with investigative reporting. We investigated everything that moved, while circulation plummeted because our readers didnt want it. Some people say we owe it to readers to give them what they want. Bullshit.
Noting that Singleton is friends with President George W. Bush, Burns says he wouldnt be surprised if the already conservative News shifted even a bit further to the right on its editorial pages.
But when it comes to reporting news, Burns expects the new owner in town to bring focus to a paper thats been floundering.
Journalistically, Burns says, I think he will sharpen up and make the paper more aggressive. Singleton might put out a pretty interesting morning paper.Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]