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."
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."
It's also shopping time again, according to Singleton. "We are definitely in an acquisition mode," he said. "We have signed a letter of intent to buy a chain of dailies in the Northeast, and we're looking at a substantial daily in the West."
Singleton answered questions after his speech, offering soothing words to a woman in the audience who voiced dismay at having to live in a city where only the Chronicle survives. She even sniped at Singleton for indicating the town would be better off.
"I didn't say Houston would be better off," he responded. "It just won't be as bad as you think. You can't do something about something you can't control. There will always be only one newspaper in this market. You gotta live with it."
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And Singleton indicated that the plight of those he left behind has been exaggerated.
"We're matchmaking for as many employees as we can," stressed Singleton, who later would not provide a figure to the Press on how many workers have found new assignments at his other papers. "But I'm not overly worried about most employees. They're highly qualified and can get jobs. In fact I'm a little surprised some people turned down jobs -- they refused to leave town."
Apparently no one's given Singleton's news flash about those happy employees to the staffers at the Houston Post Worker Transition Centers, which are being funded by a $700,000 rapid-response state grant to help the newspaper's former workers in their job searches. And Singleton probably hasn't spoken with Jo Campbell about the dozen deaf mutes from her union who worked at the Post for years and who, she fears, will have an exceedingly difficult time landing work.
Maybe it's just a whole lot easier to talk behind closed doors about buying papers with the money made from killing one than to face up to the wreckage left behind.