Post Mortem

Though not unexpected, the death of the Houston Post was still a surprise. Even more surprising was how little truth got out about how and why the paper perished.

Those are questions a community has a right to have answered when it suffers a loss of such magnitude. But Houston's elected officials and its other so-called leaders remained silent, other than to issue predictable "what a shame" eulogies for the Post. And if Houston searched the Chronicle for the questions -- much less the answers -- it searched in vain.

In a small story tucked in the back of the business section of the January 7 edition of the Houston newspaper he owned, Dean Singleton was quoted as saying "... we have no interest in selling the Post."

The story was occasioned by the previous day's visit of the Reverend Pat Robertson to the Post building. According to a Robertson spokesman, the televangelist had been there for "preliminary discussions" regarding his possible purchase of the Post.. But according to a statement attributed to Singleton, which appeared in his paper and others, Robertson's tour of the premises was simply a courtesy extended because of his "stature in American politics." (Singleton, in a phone interview with the Press six days after closing the Post, claimed the statement was issued while he was in Switzerland and should have read that the paper was "not for sale to Pat Robertson." It was Robertson who had inquired about buying the paper, Singleton says, and "we subsequently gave him every opportunity to make an offer, and he did not.")

Whatever the case, the statement attributed to Singleton turned out to be just one of a number of publicly stated untruths and evasions that preceded the Post's death. The joint statement issued by Singleton and Bennack on the day Hearst bought the Post's corpse revealed that Singleton's Consolidated Newspapers Inc. had retained a broker to try to find a buyer for the paper late last year. But no buyer could be found -- at least according to Singleton. The cost of newsprint -- which has risen almost 50 percent in the past year -- "made it impossible to see viability for the city's second newspaper," he said, leaving him no choice but to shut the Post down.

And there was this from Singleton: "We very much appreciate the effort and dedication of our employees and the tremendous support of the Houston community through what has been a very challenging operating environment. It is unfortunate that we all must face the loss of a great institution."

Unfortunate for whom?
Certainly for Post employees, whose effort was so appreciated by Singleton that he gave them no advance notice of the closing and extended their health and insurance benefits for 11 whole days after the closing. And certainly for the nation's fourth-largest city and longtime Post readers, whose support was so appreciated by Singleton that he refused to allow the paper -- which he had billed as "Houston owned, Texas proud" -- to publish one final time, explaining that he finds such farewell editions "sad" and wanted the paper to be remembered "for what is was rather than its corpse."

But how unfortunate was the Post's demise for Singleton, the baby-faced mogul who's built a compartmentalized newspaper empire on debt and other people's money?

It's impossible to say for sure how Singleton emerged from the deal, given the secrecy surrounding it and the lack of immediately available public information. But Singleton was a winner the day in 1987 that he purchased the Post from the Toronto Sun Company -- he could squeeze what he could from the paper and in the meantime be sure that, if he couldn't turn it around, the Hearst Corporation was there to take it off his hands.

Singleton, as you might expect, says that's not so.
"I don't know that I've seen anybody buy a second newspaper because they thought they could make money selling it to a competitor," he told the Press.. "We believed that over time we could reach parity and beyond. We realized early on we couldn't. We felt for at least five years that we couldn't win the marketplace. The last five years was, 'Let's keep a positive cash flow and keep the paper alive as long as we can.'"

In keeping with their commitment to submit facts to a candid world, Hearst and Singleton refused to reveal the dollar value of their transaction -- the widely reported $120 million valuation of the paper's assets appeared only in a Justice Department news release announcing the federal government's approval of the Post's closing. The Justice Department also said that the stockholders of the Post -- that is, Singleton and his partner in Consolidated Newspapers, whose sole asset was the Post -- would not realize a profit from the sale. But Consolidated Newspapers' own scripted "Questions and Answers" sheet revealed that it would report "a gain" on the deal.

That helped fuel speculation by some of the people Singleton had put on the street that he might have come away from the deal with $30 to $50 million. In his interview with the Press, Singleton didn't go out of his way to discount that possibility.

"I would like to hope I'm a good businessman," he said. "Clearly, we're dispersing an awful lot of money to employees to make their lives and transitions as easy as possible. Hey, I certainly don't think it's a sin to make money. I certainly would not apologize for making money."

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