12-31-13 | Printable Version

Goodbye to the Deal Guy: Dean Singleton retires after deal-filled career

Twenty-year-old Texas native Dean Singleton bought the Clarendon (TX) Press in 1972, the first acquisition in a newspaper career that would span 45 years. Singleton retired at the end of 2013.

Singleton bought more than 150 daily newspapers and 150 weekly newspapers in his career. He negotiated transactions, as either a buyer or seller, with an aggregate value of $6.1 billion. Few, if any, newspaper executives can match Singleton’s prolific deal-making.

Singleton bought seven more weeklies in Texas by 1975. Wanting a bigger stage, he then became a partner with Joe Allbritton. Together Singleton and Albritton built a small media company in the East. After serving as president of this company for eight years, Singleton’s next chapter began when he teamed with Richard Scudder in acquiring the Gloucester County Times in Woodbury, New Jersey.

Some of the early papers he purchased had been given up for dead by most pundits, and indeed a few of them­ were eventually closed when publishing them was no longer financially feasible. Other newspapers Singleton purchased were later sold if it was determined it made more sense for someone else to own them.

The New York Times described the young Singleton in 1984 as having “volcanic entrepreneurial drive combined with tough management style.” He earned that reputation by taking on acquisitions that no other newspaper company would. One such daily was the struggling Dallas Times Herald, which Singleton acquired in 1986. He cobbled together $110 million to buy it from Times Mirror, which was ready to throw in the towel after banging heads with A.H. Belo’s Dallas Morning News. ­­Singleton later sold the Times Herald to his old friend, John Buzzetta, making a little money in the deal and convinced that indeed Dallas was big enough for only one daily newspaper.

By the age of 36, he had built a group of newspapers that represented the 10th largest group in the country, when measured by total newspaper circulation. He retires with the fourth largest group of dailies, with just under two million daily circulation.

The saying goes, geography makes you neighbors, history makes you friends, and economics makes you partners. Perhaps no newspaper executive embraced this concept more than Dean Singleton. When Singleton acquired the Gloucester County Times in 1983 he needed the economic clout of Richard Scudder to make the deal happen. He soon got to know his neighbors, made friends, and then acquired their newspapers to form a cluster of papers. By forming this type of clustered ownership he could strip expenses by combining printing, composing, distribution and back office functions.

Singleton and Scudder soon built other clusters with partners, and through the resulting financial success Singleton was able to position himself to step up to bigger papers. That came in 1986 when Singleton acquired the Dallas Times Herald, and then within a year the Houston Post and Denver Post—all number two papers in their markets and papers almost every other acquisition-minded company wanted nothing to do with. That same year he found time to buy his hometown newspaper in Graham, Texas, which MediaNews (now merged into Digital First Media) continues to own today.

When he couldn’t buy the guy next door he looked for ways to work together. He pioneered a joint distribution concept in Los Angeles when he engineered a combined package of his suburban operations with the Los Angeles Times in an effort to better compete against Advo and the US Postal Service. He also formed a partnership with Gannett and Stephens Media, combining his newspapers with their adjacent newspapers in an effort to form stronger operating units by utilizing scale.

Newspaper deals will continue to go on after Singleton’s retirement, just as basketball went on after Michael Jordan’s retirement. But things will feel a little different. A fond goodbye to the deal guy.