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Sounding just like you'd expect a man who'd been paid $120 million by the Hearst Corporation to sound, Singleton continued on, and on: "Hearst is one of the classiest companies in our business. Frank Bennack is an honorable man who was born in San Antonio and loves Texas. The Chronicle is in great hands with very good people owning and operating it. Ad rates will get a little higher" -- and here Deano chuckled -- "actually, a lot higher."
But lest his listeners think of joining the ranks of advertisers talking boycott because of skyrocketing ad rates, Singleton added, "The Chronicle has been very fair to the community and I would ask you to appreciate them, because they aren't gouging [advertisers]."
He finally tapped the spigot of superlatives when he declared that the Chronicle "may become one of the world's class newspapers." (At that point our attention was temporarily diverted when a uniformed waitress opened the closet door and shoved in a fresh rack of dirty dishes. After recovering from the momentary surprise of confronting a suited scribbler amid the soiled ceramics, she smiled and went on about her business.)
Singleton must indeed admire the Chronicle, because he told the Ivy Leaguers he tried to buy it twice, the first time in 1987 when owner Houston Endowment was forced to unload the paper to keep its status as a non-profit foundation.
"One of the crown jewels of American journalism was being shopped around," Deano recalled. "Our company offered $415 million in cash to buy the paper." But the Endowment chose to sell the paper to Hearst for $400 million, a move that Singleton says he accepted like a real grownup.
"It does hurt your feelings when they sell to someone else," he said. "But I'm a big boy -- I took my licks and went on about my business."
Meanwhile, then-attorney general Jim Mattox got involved in the sale by securing two temporary restraining orders. Mattox argued that the Endowment was obligated to get the best possible price for the Chronicle. "When Mattox intervened we did not support that effort," said Singleton, explaining that he believes paper owners have the right to sell their property to whomever they wish. Eventually, Hearst had to buy the paper for the same price Singleton claims he offered, $415 million.
But one unrealized deal can provide the momentum for another. According to Singleton, officials of the Toronto Sun Company, then-owners of the Houston Post, heard he was on a shopping spree and offered their local property for consideration. At the same time the Times-Mirror Corporation waved the Denver Post under his nose. What's a poor CEO to do? "My reaction was that it would be silly to buy both," Singleton mused. "Maybe even suicidal." But he decided to shop till he dropped.
"A lot of Jack Daniels got passed around when we bought the Post," he explained. "So three days later we bought the Denver Post."
One of the first things Singleton did at the Houston Post was bring in a media consultant who directed the paper away from the Canadians' garish red masthead and tabloid headline approach "to a more conservative look." The consultant also advised that more boosterism would bring back advertising. "It did," Singleton said. "1989 was the best year we had here."
But it was all downhill from there, Singleton told the audience, and by 1993 he had realized there was no way to beat the Chronicle. If you can't beat them, buy them, he reasoned. He claimed that he made an offer to Hearst to buy the Chronicle on May 5, 1993. "It was a big offer, fully financed, and they soundly rejected it," said Singleton. "It was apparent that Hearst had decided to stay in Houston."
In one other twist, Singleton said that he and Hearst officials agreed at the end of the year to explore the possibility of a joint operating agreement between the two papers, one that would have had both being published out of one facility. The talks, said Singleton, foundered when both sides decided there was no long-term future in a marriage, particularly one in which one of the partners would have to move to the afternoon.
Perhaps the most unbelievable comment of his speech was Singleton's contention that he would have foregone $50 million from the price paid by Hearst to break even and sell the paper to a willing buyer he wouldn't name. He told the audience a closing date for such a deal had actually been set, but the buyer got cold feet as the cost of newsprint skyrocketed. This may have been the rumored dalliance between Singleton and the owner of the Dallas Morning News, A.H. Belo Corporation. In any case, it's hard to imagine Dean Singleton turning his back on a pirate's treasure simply to keep the Houston Post alive. Perhaps the main thrust of his tale was to signal to the executives with the Harvard degrees that he had walked away from the Post with a $50 million nest egg.
So what's in the future for the cash-flush CEO? "Our company is stronger than it's ever been," crowed Singleton. "We own 76 papers and it's been a banner year for the Denver Post, the flagship of our chain. We have more to work with there than we had in Houston."