Safe For Now

Register eludes slash-and-burner Singleton

What goes around came around for big, bad "newspaper" publisher William Dean Singleton (Long Beach Press-Telegram, Los Angeles Daily News) last week. After months of negotiations, Freedom Communications pulled the rug out from under his plan to buy The Orange County Register. Instead, Freedom made a deal with a couple of investment firms that will keep the descendents of Registerfounder R.C. Hoiles in control of the company he started in the 1930s—while allowing dissident family members to cash out at the current market price.

In the end, all that negotiating simply determined how much the outta-here heirs were going to get. Ruthless, yes, but that has always been how Singleton conducted his wheeling and dealing—make that steamrolling and undercutting—as he built his MediaNews Inc. empire from a fleet of once-proud operations into a stable of cut rate, "Singleton" papers.

Yet, Singleton still had the gall to whine to The New York Times that "it was a very unfair process. [Hoiles' heirs] essentially shopped every offer they had around to try to come up with a price that the insider group could use." His self-pity was appalling considering his record of unfairness. MediaNews has been a Soylent Green-style operation from the get-go, feeding on once-quality lives and jobs that Singleton has mashed into a gluttonous profit margin. Any of Singleton's righteous anger was more than offset by the celebration of Registerworkers who feared they'd end up like their colleagues at the Long Beach Press-Telegram.

Next month will mark six years since Singleton bought the Press-Telegram, a paper that once landed with a thud but now flutters like a kite. When Singleton arrived, the P-T offered the kind of pay and benefits—protected by more than a half-century of union-negotiated contracts—that enabled it to retain solid journalists. These days, its skeleton staff is largely a parade of just-outta-J-schoolers who consider it the first puddle in a career path to a real newspaper.

Singleton's priorities were already clear when he bought the Press-Telegram in 1997, and he still may be best known for this statement he made in 1995 to the American Journalism Review: "If I had my choice between pleasing one banker or 1,000 journalists, I'd rather please the banker."

Nonetheless, the way Singleton stormed through a paper that was celebrating its 100th anniversary was shocking. He showed up at the Press-Telegram to personally inform employees that they made too much money, that they were fortunate to be employed at all and that the list of their subscribers was worth more in a sale to a competitor than their newspaper itself. Then he proclaimed all union contracts null and void and summoned every worker, one at a time, to appear before his staff to plead for his or her livelihood.

It took only two weeks to march nearly 500 employees through the re-application process—not very long because these weren't typical employment interviews. Workers were told that résumés and clips were unnecessary. The interviewers didn't even take notes. Employees emerged bewildered from interviews consisting of chats about the weather, football, freeway traffic or the best restaurants in town. Some questions pried into lifestyle, relationships and children. One woman was forced to reveal that she had no kids because her only son had just committed suicide. Meanwhile, just so the workers wouldn't forget how dispensable they were, their jobs were being advertised in the Press-Telegram's help-wanted section.

A couple of weeks later, just before Christmas, the employees invited to stay were given take-it-or-leave-it offers to sign on the spot. Most of them had their wages slashed in half and their benefits ground into rubble. Everyone else was escorted from the plant by armed guards.

This appeared to be illegal. The union contracts—the latest of them signed just a few months earlier with the paper's previous owner, Knight-Ridder—had been negotiated to include a clause that made them binding on whoever bought the Press-Telegram. The union exchanged some health-care benefits for that clause.

But Singleton and Knight-Ridder got around that clause by describing their transaction as an "asset sale" of such things as the building, computers, presses and subscriber lists. According to this argument, the employees and their contracts were not among the assets sold or bought.

Technically, then, Singleton claimed he was starting a whole new paper—that he just happened to decide to call the Long Beach Press-Telegram. In other words, that centennial celebration was suddenly over. Officially, the Press-Telegram is a six-year-old paper.

The union endured, however, and, although crippled by a smaller employee pool and an open-shop arrangement, reached a contract agreement three years later. While wages and benefits are a fraction of what they were before Singleton arrived, the Press-Telegram workers are by far among the best-paid in the scorched earth that is MediaNews.

And so the employees at the Register—those who didn't bail in dread of Singleton's presumed arrival—avoided all of that. The mood in the Santa Ana offices has been pretty festive.

But nobody's pretending the threat of Singleton is over. For that matter, the two investment firms—Blackstone Communications Partners and Providence Equity Partners—are likely to do their own style of economic nipping and tucking. While they do, Singleton will be waiting.

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