None of the companies involved is confirming or commenting on the reported four-paper bid by MediaNews Group. There are no indications that the bidding process is closed or that McClatchy has made a decision. But MediaNews Group has been considered a likely suitor for the St. Paul paper since its founder and CEO, Dean Singleton, toured the Pioneer Press more than a month ago.
In certain circles Singleton has a bad reputation. Right now, those circles include many in the Pioneer Press newsroom.
"It's very troubling," says Jack Sullivan, a reporter covering Washington County, and one of the paper's union officers.
"To be frank, MediaNews Group is the company that people most feared would become the owner of the Pioneer Press," according to Sullivan. "Largely that's because it has a reputation for maximizing short-term profitability, often at the expense of the long-term quality and viability of the papers that it owns."
Denver-based MediaNews Group owns 40 daily papers around the U.S. The largest is the Denver Post, generally considered a healthy and successful paper. But CEO Dean Singleton gained notoriety in the industry -- along with the unflattering nicknames "Lean Dean" and "Stinky Singleton" -- in part through some major newspaper failures. In the late '80s, he bought two shaky papers, the Dallas Times Herald and the Houston Post. He eventually sold both, in even more dire condition, to their cross-town competitors -- who closed them.
Singleton has invested in some papers and slashed costs at others. If there is a consistent theme, it seems to be an unsentimental devotion to profitability. When he took over the Long Beach Press Telegram in 1997, he gave workers 15 minutes-notice that they would have to reinterview for their jobs and began thinning the ranks of the newsroom soon thereafter.
Newspaper industry analyst John Morton says Singleton is known for tough negotiations with unions.
"He has, in the past, when he's made an asset acquisition, told the unions that they're welcome to come in the next morning and renegotiate their contracts. He lives with unions at several of his operations, but you can't expect him to be easy-going on union contracts," says Morton.
Given the current financial challenges in the newspaper industry, Morton says Singleton's tough tactics are no longer the exception to the rule. Even so, Morton believes employees' fears that Singleton will make deep cuts are probably overblown. He says readers, however, might notice that a Pioneer Press under MediaNews Group has a more local feel, with more attention to community events.
"What you'll probably not see as much of is heavy investigative reporting and that sort of thing. Basically they see the future of newspapers as heavily community-oriented; more so than in the past. I mean, that's a tack a lot of companies are now following, but I think MediaNews perhaps more than most," he says.
At the Denver Post, reporter Jeff Lieb says under 20 years of Dean Singleton, the paper has continued a heavy emphasis on investigations, and recently sent reporters to Afghanistan and Iraq. Like the Twin Cities, Denver has long been a market with two competing papers. Lieb credits MediaNews not with bleeding the Post, but reviving it.
"I have to say from our experience, we feel that we probably wouldn't have the Denver Post without MediaNews and without Dean," according to Lieb. "It's been a good two decades. This paper hasn't been starved for resources."
Lieb is also a union official at the paper. He says contract negotiations have been tough, but the union has done well. Lieb says whatever Singleton's earlier reputation, it has not been borne out at the Denver Post.
"It's been a lean operation but it is, I feel, a quality operation. He believes in quality journalism. I'd have to tell folks I wouldn't be terribly fearful -- except the climate in this industry now, as we know is very problematic, and who knows what's going to happen -- at any paper," he says.
In fact, the Denver Post announced this week it would offer its staff buyouts and early retirement to try to cut costs; the first time Lieb can remember such an action. To some observers, its a symptom of that financial caution pervading the industry. To others, though, it suggests MediaNews is saving its money for a big purchase.