Guest Columns

CONARROE: SINGLETON ADDS A NOTCH TO HIS BELT

Dean Singleton wins the day, for now

By Percy Conarroe

After six years, the Joint Operating Agreement between the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News, designed to save the latter, is grinding down, a financial failure. News owner Scripps wants out, even if it means shuttering the News

Singleton

Self-styled newspaper critics can pontificate all over the place about blame, cause and effect, but in the driver’s seat is Dean Singleton, a brilliant print-media magnate who is just too smart for them and — so far — also is too smart for his growing list of competitors, including the once-mighty Scripps.

Singleton, who is noted for playing his cards close to his vest, deserves credit for his guts, energy and tenacity. He can play either side of the JOA game, and is apparently taking the minority role in daily newspapers in Detroit, Salt Lake City and Charleston, W.V.

His privately held company, MediaNews Group, has blossomed into one of America’s largest predominantly paid-circulation newspaper chains. He owns, operates or has his fingers in at least 60 dailies and 97 non-dailies.

Critics can holler, “Monopoly!” But, realistically, the newspaper business is so tough today that many of these communities might not have any local newspaper of record were it not for Singleton. They all can’t be winners.

In Colorado, besides the Post, MediaNews Group owns or operates at least five dailies and six non-dailies. That’s still fewer than the six dailies and seven non-dailies owned by Swift Communications — although Swift, based in Reno, Nev., just closed down Carbondale’s weekly Valley Journal.

It remains to be seen how far Singleton can extend his newspaper empire before it — with other newspaper chains — collapses under the weight of numbing declines in the industry and the economy.

These crippling factors combine to make it almost impossible for start-up newspapers to succeed, even in non-competitive markets.

It’s no secret that Singleton chairs the Denver Newspaper Agency, which controls both Denver dailies and his other Colorado affiliates. The newspaper business is not your ordinary creature, yet it has one thing in common with most other commercial enterprises — the person who allocates the money usually gets to call the shots.

Still, the lack of full, transparent financial disclosure by both principals in this Denver fight to the finish is troublesome. Reports kept saying all along that the Post was making money while the News was losing its shirt. How could that be?

Scripps’ other Colorado newspapers, the Boulder Daily Camera, the Colorado Daily and the Broomfield Enterprise, also are in the DNA mix — and the Camera announced Dec. 18 that it is doing nicely financially.

Critics can quibble over page-size affecting advertising revenue (News=tabloid vs. Post=journal). But that should make no difference if — under the JOA — the combined total was supposed to be split. Both, as do most dailies, overcharge for classifieds and capitalize on obituaries. And those are not good ways to foster the image of a caring press that serves its public.

Retail businesses started moving away from run-of-press advertising years ago when newspapers — dailies especially — decided to deliver preprinted inserts by the ton at discounted prices. In the Denver market, where circulation has held pretty well, considering, there may not be enough run-of-press advertising left for two major dailies to wrap their news and commentary around. In contrast, the Wall Street Journal and USA Today seem to thrive without inserts.

Couple that complication with the unforgiving Internet, and it’s doubly unlikely that any sane publisher would want to face off with Singleton in Denver, whether in or out of a JOA. Under the current JOA with the News, he has veto power over any successor thereto. All parties involved, including the Justice Department, signed off on that stipulation. So that’s that.

For some of us with printer’s ink and metal in our veins (mine comes from 50 years of editing and publishing Colorado small-town newspapers) the answer to whether Denver can continue to have competing major daily newspapers lies within its retail business establishments and their advertising agencies. It’s their decision. And, so far, they’ve said no.

Newspapers get results, but they cannot publish on good wishes alone. Wake up, Denver!

Percy Conarroe served as president of the Colorado Press Association in 1981, and is an honorary lifetime member. Before retiring in 1998, he and his family published the Louisville Times, Lafayette News, Erie Review and Superior Observer.