Singleton brings message of optimism to Pioneer Press staff

Dean Singleton
Dean Singleton, CEO of MediaNews Group, met with employees of the St. Paul Pioneer Press Thursday evening after his company announced it was buying the paper.
MPR Photo/Annie Baxter

The big question floating around the past few days is, simply put, why is Dean Singleton interested in the Pioneer Press? He tends to own papers in geographic clusters, like the three west coast papers he purchased in a package with the Pioneer Press. Singleton's company, MediaNews Group, doesn't own any other papers near here. So the Pioneer Press sticks out.

In the Pioneer Press's lobby, Singleton explained what he likes about the paper.

Dave Hanners
Reporter Dave Hanners says he is warming to the new boss. "It was encouraging he used the word fun, and fun is one of the reasons many of us got into the newspaper business," said Hanners.
MPR Photo/Annie Baxter

"We think this is outstanding market. It's a competitive market and a divided market between Minneapolis and St. Paul. But we really like the position the Pioneer Press has in its own market, and we got very excited about it," Singleton said.

That representation of the Pioneer Press's market strength is a slight exaggeration. The paper's 10 percent operating profit margin is not considered robust.

But when asked about that, Singleton dismissed the question outright.

"Margin is something that our company has never paid attention to, because you don't pay your bills with margin, you pay them with dollars. And as long as we can create a growing business with a growing profit, the margin is not really that important," Singleton said.

Singleton wants to make the paper stronger and more competitive with the Star Tribune. That's what he told Pioneer Press staff in a meeting with them Thursday afternoon.

We think this is outstanding market. We really like the position the Pioneer Press has in its own market, and we got very excited about it.

Many workers, like Donna Lucas, who works in classifieds, emerged from that meeting amped by Singleton's optimism.

"It was a very positive message. Very positive," Lucas said. "I think we'll have a good outlook for the Pioneer Press under his tutelage, and I think it'll all turn out for the best for us. I see it being only a good thing that's happening to the Pioneer Press."

Reporter David Hanners had expressed a wary optimism about Singleton just a day earlier. But after hearing him speak, Hanners said he was warming to the new boss, too.

"It was encouraging he used the word fun, and fun is one of the reasons many of us got into the newspaper business," said Hanners.

A number of workers said Singleton's affability put them at ease. Singleton demonstrated some of that lighthearted spirit in response to a question about his reputation as a ruthless cost-cutter, and his nickname, "Lean Dean."

"Unfortunately, we're on radio, and if we weren't you could tell I'm not lean," Singleton joked. "Actually, I've always been honored to be called lean, because I've never been lean."

Singleton glanced down at a bit of paunch around his middle, and then went on to explain that his "lean" reputation has other origins.

Pioneer Press employee
Reporter Emily Gurnon says she's skeptical that Singleton's company, MediaNews, will really leave all contract issues to local management to deal with, and she's still worried about possible cuts at the paper.
MPR Photo/Annie Baxter

"We make sure our newspapers live within their means. And we make sure they're viable businesses. And sometimes that means that you've got to be very efficient. But I'm not ashamed of that," he said.

In spite of the Pioneer Press workers' mostly warm reception of Singleton, several did express consternation about his zeal for efficiency. Singleton has made major staff cuts at at least two of his papers in recent years.

Pioneer Press workers, many of whom are unionized, are worried about their own job security, especially since their union contract expires next year.

Singleton said union contracts will be handled by local management, and his company MediaNews won't step into negotiations unless asked.

Pioneer Press Reporter Marty Moylan said he wants to stay optimistic, but he hasn't heard anything concrete enough to persuade him that jobs and pay scales will remain intact.

"We want to know if we're going to face that scenario of, are you fired and have to reapply for the job, and are they going to cut wages?" Moylan said. "They didn't say it's not going to happen. They didn't say it would happen."

Moylan says he'll be carefully following what goes on at the San Jose Mercury News, where the union contracts are expiring in just a couple of months. Dean Singleton is acquiring that paper along with the Pioneer Press. Moylan says whatever happens in San Jose could give a better picture of the kind of boss Singleton will be in St. Paul.

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