Jun 2, 2008

The conversation

In the run-up to a June 13 union vote, Bay Area Newspaper Group Publisher John Armstrong has launched an internal Web site to answer questions about the merits of unionizing. In the "Questions for the Publisher" section an interesting conversation broke out. The subject: Dean Singleton, and whether Armstrong would stand up to him.

Warning: This is longer than eight inches, so you might want to grab a snack - I'd provide a link, but this comes from a password protected site.

First, the question:
Friday, May 30, 2008
To: John Armstrong
From: Singletonphobe

John,

A cynical person might reasonably infer that you failed to answer the questions I posed to you here, oh, about a week ago, because the answers don't quite fit the talking points you've been parroting the last few weeks.

Must be an oversight that you've cherrypicked the easy ones, overlooking the ones that raise questions about, oh, our new owner, William Dean Singleton, the future of the company, your willingness to stand up to Singleton. Stuff like that.

You did, after all, admonish us to approach the election as a journalistic enterprise, challenging both management and the union with the same tough questions you rightfully expect us to ask the powerful on behalf of our readers. It is, after all, our livelihoods at stake here.

You encouraged us to address tough questions to you on this website. If you were to intentionally ignore the tough questions, then you weren't being completely honest with us. If that's the case, this website is a farce. I am reposting the questions posed to you a week ago, and look forward to your response.

1) For those of us who are mistrustful of Singleton, can you assure us that if he acts in a way that's inconsistent with the values we know you to hold, you will spare no effort in standing up to him?

2) If Singleton's history is any indicator, he has little use for those at any level who've stood up to him. Publishers have been axed too. On a scale of 1 to 10, how certain are you that you could stand up to Singleton under the above-mentioned scenario, and remain our publisher?

3) Strip away the rhetoric on both sides, and this election really comes down to one thing and one thing only: William Dean Singleton. That's the face we're going to see on that ballot. Whether you're for or against unions in theory, it's an entirely different matter when you're dealing with Singleton if even half of what most of us believe about him is true.

In your view, what are the most significant misconceptions, or even misrepresentations about Singleton you think we should know?
Armstrong responds:
Friday, May 30, 2008

From: John Armstrong
To: Singletonphobe

Wow. There's nothing like the "cloak of anonymity" to bring out the rudeness in some people. Whatever.

I've never dodged a single question from an employee and don't intend to start now. You asked about Dean Singleton. I always intended to respond but with other business responsibilities had not managed until now to carve out the time to frame my thoughts.

On the web site of the union organizers, and at several of the meetings Kevin and I held with newsroom employees last week, people have readily volunteered their opinions on our "owner."

The union loves to attack Singleton. He's an easy target, I guess, because few, if any, of the union organizers have ever met the man, much less had a meaningful conversation with him. The organizers feel they have to take a shot at somebody, and they seem hesitant to throw Kevin and me under the bus, given our track records separately at ANG and Contra Costa and then together in Bay Area News Group-East Bay. In fact, the organizers have gone out of their way to praise us.

I read all the clippings about Singleton, of course, and I know what his critics say about him. However, my perceptions of him, and my understanding of his vision of what we can accomplish in the East Bay, are formed by the many hours I've spent with him, discussing the challenges and opportunities we face as an industry and I face as the leader of BANG-East Bay.

To fully understand Singleton, you need to experience the man first-hand . . . and you need to apply a healthy dose of skepticism to what the union and other critics say about him. It's easy to attack someone you don't know. Heck, in these tough times, it's easy to attack any owner because it's a time of tough decisions, and not everyone is going to agree with every decision that an owner makes.

To fully understand Singleton, you need to understand the ownership structure of BANG-East Bay. Our company is part of the Bay Area News Group (the other large BANG entities being the San Jose Mercury News, Marin Independent Journal and Santa Cruz Sentinel), and BANG is owned by the California Newspapers Partnership.

Singleton is CEO of MediaNews Group, which is the managing partner of CNP. Other CNP partners are Gannett Co. and Stephens Media. Singleton serves as chairman of the CNP Board and as such has responsibilities for performance not just for the MediaNews share but also for the shares of Gannett and Stephens. The point being that we have three owners, not just one.

You also need to appreciate the special attention that Singleton gives to the East Bay. He often points out that when he acquired the Contra Costa Times, Mercury News and St. Paul Pioneer Press, he paid the most for Contra Costa. Which means he placed his biggest bet in the East Bay.

He did so because of his belief that the combination of the Contra Costa and ANG newspapers and web sites creates a powerful media presence that overshadows all competitors in the East Bay. While we've been dealt a tough economy in the early life of BANG-East Bay, the premise for placing so many chips on our future remains as valid today as when he made the bet in 2006.

In my many discussions with Singleton, he has been steadfast on basic principles:

• Sometimes you have to make difficult decisions to get through a tough economic period, but never cut expenses so deeply that you hurt your ability to come back strongly when the economy comes back.

• Do whatever you can to maintain or grow what he calls "feet on the street" – i.e., reporters and photographers, sales representatives and others who are out in our communities. (At a meeting less than a year ago, Singleton told the BANG management team it was cutting too deeply in some areas, including the newsrooms. He restored some spending and adjusted his profit expectation accordingly. Is that consistent with the rumors about Singleton? No. Did it happen? Yes.)

• You can't continually cut expenses to grow. The key to growth is growing revenue.

• The best way to grow revenue is to grow audience. In normal economic conditions, more audience translates directly into more advertising and circulation revenue. (The only time I've witnessed Singleton lose his temper is when he learned that one of his newspapers in Northern California cut circulation promotion expenses to achieve a profit target. He quickly apologized for his outburst, but his point had been made.)

To fully understand Singleton you have to ask yourself this: Is he doing anything that the owners of the other major newspaper-based companies are not doing now? Look what's happening at McClatchy, at Gannett, at the New York Times Co., at Tribune Co. Pick an owner of any newspaper-based company. They all are trying to cope with falling revenue due to the economic slump and the migration of audience and ad dollars to the Internet.

To fully understand Singleton, you have to hear him talk about newspapers. He loves newspapers. He still believes in newspapers. He gets roundly criticized for reducing the costs of newspapers but never gets credit for literally saving newspapers by doing so.

I for one take comfort that he believes in newspapers a lot more than did the big institutional shareholders of Knight Ridder and Tribune Co. who forced the break up of those once great newspaper institutions.

Am I ready to elevate our principal owner to sainthood? Hardly. But I do bristle when he's demonized. Believe me, no one wants to see us succeed in the East Bay more than Dean Singleton.

One of the ways he believes success can best be accomplished is to put his faith in and support behind the people on the ground; i.e., the publisher and senior executives who are in the market and running the operation on a daily basis.

This approach has been demonstrated time and again, most recently with his approval of a buyout program, recommended by our management team, that even the union organizers grudgingly concede was well done.

Singletonphobe raises a hypothetical question: Would I "stand up to Singleton" if what he might want to do at BANG-East Bay were against my core values. The answer is a resounding yes, and anyone who knows me would never ask such a question.

So allow me to fire a question back at Singletonphobe:

Does Singletonphobe think I would have more leverage with Singleton if the employees turned their backs on Kevin and me and voted in the union or if they expressed their trust in Kevin and me by voting to remain union-free?

John
Singletonphobe replies:
Monday, June 2, 2008

From: Singletonphobe
To: John Armstrong

John,

Thanks for the reply. I appreciate your candor, and your class. It seemed like you were quick to answer some of the less controversial questions, and I just about blew a gasket when you brought up that Beck case again. But I was more than rude, and you were right to call me out.

You made several statements in your reply that I strongly disagree with. But the resounding yes to my hypothetical about standing up to Singleton for your core values is the most human thing I’ve heard said by either side. Frankly, it needed to be said. Hopefully, it can be a starting point to healing some wounds.

And no, I can’t say you’ve ever dodged a tough question.

You posed the question back to me of whether I think you’d have more or less leverage with Singleton if we turn our back on you and Kevin by ratifying the union.
I don’t think anyone knows.

But what I don’t get why you’re taking this union vote personally. It’s absolutely not a referendum on your leadership. It’s a referendum on Singleton. In the MediaNews Gulag, nobody knows who’s here today and gone tomorrow. It’s a new world for many of us. We’ve already seen a parade of publishers and high-level executives’ necks land on the Singleton guillotine. Nobody really knows how long you’ll be in the company to honor a deal, or who’d replace you. What we do know is that Singleton is the constant. If we had more benevolent or at lest more stable ownership, we may or may not be clamoring for collective bargaining, but the dynamics would be different.

You know Singleton in a different context and obviously have a different take than anyone I know. Believe me, you’d have different take on the man if you talked to a single mom in her 20s like 10 years ago when she had to read Singleton’s gleeful diatribe about how he bullied union negotiators into a bunk contract with crappy health insurance. Nice work, Dean.

It’s not just the union or the media that hates Singleton. It’s almost everyone who’s ever worked for the man. How many coca roaches do you need to find in a plate of spaghetti before you toss the whole thing out?

You rightfully point out that Singleton isn’t alone in making merciless cuts. Our industry is in the throes of in a historic freefall, and everybody’s cutting. I’ll give you that. But nobody’s persona is more closely identified with cuts. ``More with less’’ has been the Singleton way since he ran that first Texas chain into the ground and wound up staring at the ceiling of psych ward.

Comparing Singleton to the New York Times is like comparing Barry Bonds to F.P. Santangelo. Yeah, they both juiced, but come on...

Thanks again for the reply.

Singletonphobe.

1 comment:

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