By Camilo Smith
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If you were in a charitable mood, you might give newspaper-killer Dean Singleton credit for nerve, if nothing else. In this age when grudging employees go postal on their bosses for little or no reason, the 44-year-old baby face who launched a thousand pink slips at the Houston Post came strutting back to town with nary a visible concern last week for his first public appearance here since the newspaper's closing.
Then again, Singleton probably had little cause for concern. His speech was not publicized, and the venue for it -- a luncheon of the Harvard Business School Club at the green-carpeted and wood-paneled Houston Club downtown -- is not the kind of place where Singleton would risk accidentally bumping into an angry pressman or copy editor he had put on the streets.
And, indeed, Singleton gave the accommodatingly passive crowd of Ivy Leaguers a news flash that might have incited his former employees to riot had they been present. Deano informed the audience that he had reached an agreement in principle with the Hearst Corporation, owners of the Houston Chronicle, to sell the assets of the Post on August 31, 1994 -- fully eight months before the paper was shuttered without notice.
That bit of information had been conspicuously absent from all the public pronouncements about the Post's closing that were issued in April by Singleton, Hearst Corporation CEO Frank Bennack and the U.S. Justice Department, which had to approve the deal for Hearst to purchase the Post's assets. It's likely to further raise the hackles of Singleton's former employees, who had gone about their business for Deano for months, unaware that their fates had pretty much been signed and sealed. And it certainly raises questions about the stated reason for the Post's demise -- the rising cost of newsprint that, according to Singleton, the financially shaky newspaper was unable to absorb. Newsprint costs were going up a bit last August and were predicted to go higher in the near future, but the biggest round of increases were yet to come.
For some reason, Jo Campbell, the president and secretary-treasurer of Houston Typographical Union No. 87, was not invited to hear Singleton's address, and you might say she was a bit perturbed when informed of its content.
"My main concern is what the hell is going on with the Justice Department?" exclaimed Campbell, whose union had 65 members at the Post when it closed. "I just don't doubt that this was a done deal before anybody knew about it. How did they let him get away with it?"
Good question. We tried and failed to get any semblance of explanation from the Justice Department and the New York-based Hearst Corporation. Before he got away, however, we did manage to ask Singleton why he had gone through the motions of hiring a broker to "market" the Post in its final months while denying to the world it was even for sale.
"Because we had to," he replied as he waited to board an elevator after his Houston Club speech.
In other words (if we can elaborate for him), he had to go through the charade of making the paper available for purchase to ensure his deal with Hearst won what now appears to be the pro-forma nod of the Justice Department.
Singleton was similarly circumspect when asked, as he disembarked from the elevator, why he had decreed that his address to the Harvard-schooled executives was off-limits to the press.
"I'm not answering questions," he answered, a faint look of discomfort passing over his singularly bland features. Then he headed out to the streets.
The Harvard club (willfully ignoring its old school motto, Veritas, which, if we recall from tenth-grade Latin, translates to truth), agreed to Singleton's demand that the media be barred from the luncheon. But that didn't stop the Press from utilizing the tag-team approach we employed to crack Mayor Bob Lanier's recent no-press-allowed fundraiser-cum-Broadway musical extravaganza. While one Press employee diverted a business school club official at the side doors of the meeting room, a colleague slipped into an adjoining storage area for dirty dishes and monitored Singleton's speech from there. There were more tidbits in the presentation than on the rackfuls of crusty plates.
For example, Singleton related that when he called Lanier to inform him that the Post was to be closed and sold, the mayor responded, "Sorry to hear that, but it will make things a lot easier for me."
He also confirmed that he had received $120 million in cash for the carcass of the dead paper, while distributing what he characterized as a generous $12 million back to the jobless work force in severance and benefits.
And we hope that the former Postmaster was blushing (we couldn't see, being out in the hall and all) as he lavished ... and lavished ... and lavished praise on his former competitor. His adulation of Hearst was so syrupy that you'd have thought he had decided to substitute the rhetoric for the luncheon dessert. Singleton assured his listeners they are in good hands with the Chronicle "because they're owned by a proud company that just oozes class. They're at the top of my list of class companies. Frank Bennack wants this to be his crown jewel. I expect great things from the Chronicle."