AS WILLIAM DEAN SINGLETON tells the story-and he tells it often-he bid into the Dallas newspaper war in a moment of half-crazy impulsé, a moment seasoned with camaraderie and lubricated by alcohol. It wasn’t a thing he planned to do. He was simply showing off a little, bragging with the big boys. Somehow, though, he heard himself blurting it out. and a $110 million deal was born: “I’m going to buy the Dallas Times Herald nm\ show you idiots how to run it.”
Lis Angeles Times: publisher Tom Johnson remembers the evening vividly. It was at the annual meeting of the American Newspaper Publishers Association in San Francisco last April during a party hosted by USA Today, Ray Charles was the featured entertainment, and Johnson, who grew up in Macon. Georgia, was especially eager to hear the man who popularized “Georgia on My Mind.” Selling the Dallas Times Herald, owned by his paper’s parent corporation. Times Mirror Company, was the last thing on Johnson’s mind.
“I happened to he sitting next to Dean [Singleton] and we were making conversation.” says Johnson. “He had just bought five or six newspapers, I don’t remember how many, and I asked him what he was going to do next.” That’s when Singleton, who claims he had downed cocktails at each of eight convention parties that day. issued his challenge. It was “kind of a smart-assed thing to do,” Singleton says now, but it sounded good al the time. Maybe he should buy the newspaper that had just recorded its first loss since Times Mirror acquired, it in 1970. Maybe he could show Tom Johnson, Otis Chandler, and others at the mammoth LA Tunes how to run the Dallas daily against hot competition. Why not?
Next morning, his head pounding but his mind clear, Singleton renewed his offer to buy the Times Herald. In (he weeks that followed, executives of his company. Me-diaNews Group, met for long, tough hours with Times Mirror brass to Stitch together a deal that would dramatically change (he shape of newspapering in one of the last American cities with two vigorous, competitive dailies. On .lune 26, barely two months after Ray Charles crooned accompaniment to Singleton’s braggadocio, an agreement in principle was announced. Me-diaNews would pay $110 million in cash and notes for the Dallas daily on Pacific Avenue.
Details remained to be negotiated, but lor all practical purposes, il was a done deal. On September .S, final signatures closed a major chapter in Dallas journalism history, a chapter in which both (he Times Herald ana the rival Dallas Morning News improved from third-rate rags to newspapers of modest distinction During a ceremony officially transferring ownership. Singleton recalls. Johnson chided him:
“You’ve done the first half of what you said you would do. You Ve bought the Dallas Times Herald. Now let’s see you handle the hard part. Let’s see you show us how to run it,”
MOST OF WHAT TOM JOHNSON SAID ON THE telephone shortly after the sale was announced last June was private. He wanted to talk about his personal investment of energy and emotion in the paper, and he wanted it off the record. Perhaps it is not betraying a confidence, though, to report that there was a catch in his voice, that he sounded close to tears. He has spoken several times since of his disappointment that Times Mirror lei the Times Herald go.
“I was very disappointed personally,” Jonnson says today. “I was disappointed that the sale was necessary. I experienced a great deal of grief, not unlike what anybody feels when they sell a home or something they have invested a great deal of themselves in. 1 had a lot of my life dedicated, to that newspaper.”
In fact, Johnson has been linked to the Times Herald for more than half of his adult life. He was at the paper, first as editor and then as publisher, from 1973 until 1977. When he moved to Los Angeles to join the LA Times, he still kept tabs on the Herald and visited occasionally. In 1984, when the Herald’s, circulation and advertising slides became alarming, Otis Chandler, who chairs Times Mirror’s executive committee, assigned Johnson to shuttle between Dallas and the West Coast, running the paper here on top of his duties as publisher of the Times.
During his first stint as publisher, Johnson began a series of journalistic improvements that touched off the famous Dallas newspaper war. He hired a bevy of bright young reporters and brought in Editor Ken Johnson to guide them. The paper became what a slogan recently added to the front page banner claims it is today, “The best newspaper in Texas.” And because it was journalistically superior to anything the state had seen before, it steadily gained circulation and advertising market shares until The Dallas Morning News woke up and began its own campaign of improvements in 1981.
By the time Johnson was dispatched on the red-eye special to take over the paper a set: ond time, much of what he accomplished earlier had fallen apart. Ken Johnson was gone, and his successor, Will Jarrett, was on shaky ground, The circulation system was in shambles. Management was haphazard. The news department was adrift with no clear editorial direction. Johnson patched up the operation and recruited a whole new management team in hopes that they could set the 3aper permanently aright.
Most crucial of Johnson’s new hires was \rl Wible, who came to Dallas as publisher from the New York Daily News in September 1985, Wible sized up the market and recommended to his new boss that the Wines Herald be sold. The best buyer, Wible said, would be a Dallas company, one that would understand the city and control the operation from the center of the action. Times Mirror was too far away, too big. and too distracted by other properties to manage a Dallas paper effectively during the current economic decline and beyond.
“We knew the paper was up for possible sale some while before Singleton came into the picture,” says Doug Mccorkindale, chief financial officer of Gannett Co. Inc., which owns USA Today. “We looked at it very carefully and decided not to pursue a purchase. We know the newspaper world pretty well,” says Mccorkindale, who manages Gannett acquisitions that lately have averaged $100 million a month. “We think that buying a newspaper that is clearly number two in a competitive market does not make good business sense for us right now.”
But Singleton obviously felt it made good business sense for his young newspaper company, which has acquired twenty-six dailies and nineteen weeklies in only three years. At the price he-paid for the Times Herald (an unidentified group of Dallas investors entered a bid at about the same time, but their offer was deemed “embarrassingly low”), hardly anyone disagrees. By almost any measure, it was a bargain basement deal.
John Morton, a media analyst for the securities firm Lynch Jones & Ryan, has estimated that the $110 million sale price of the Herald, half of which is in notes to he paid to Times Mirror over the next twelve years, roughly equaled the value of the paper’s tangible assets, never mind its potential profits. But Singleton says Morton’s guess is too low. By the time you add in new offset presses, which Times Mirror agreed to continue paying for through installation, the new owner says assets may run closer to $140 million. ’”I wouldn’t have bought it if I didn’t think il was a good deal ” he adds.
Tom Johnson insists the sale also was a good deal for Times Mirror. He claims there was “absolutely no connection” between the transaction here and his company’s $600 million purchase of newspaper and broadcast properties in Baltimore at about the same time, but he says the Times Herald ate up money and energy that could be better employed elsewhere. “There was no question that it was in the best interest of stockholders to sell the paper. After examining the facts, 1 supported the sale.”
According to Bruce Thorp, also with Lynch Jones &. Ryan, Times Mirror claims pre-tax gains of $17.4 million on the sale of the Times Herald. But that figure may understate real capital gains substantially, the analyst adds. Il is roughly the difference between the $110 million sale price and the $91.5 million the corporation reported in the 1970 purchase.
Thorp points out, however, that’ the: original purchase was a package deal, also including KDFW-TV. Channel 4. which Singleton did not buy. Though the 1970 purchase agreement called for the corporation to transfer $91.5 million in stock, by the time the transaction closed, the stock was worth only S48.5 million. “Depending on what you think the TV station is worth today,” says Thorp, “’you might consider the sale of the Times Herald 100 percent profit.”
As a buyer, Singleton was not everything Art Wible wanted: his company was not based in Texas. But the new owner is a Texas native. Early in his career, he worked briefly for the Morning News, and he once purchased Tire fort Worth Press in a futile effort to keep that long-lamented daily alive, With his purchase of the Herald, Singleton says proudly that Dallas is the only American city with two locally owned, independent dailies.
Singleton and Wible fit well on another count, too. Both apparently believe that prudent management with a stem eye to the bottom line will make the difference between success and failure at (he T?ntes Herald. Where Times Mirror believes a tempest is best weathered by pouring in more money to produce an ever-improving product, Singleton flatly declares he will not tolerate so much as a drop of red ink.
“I am not ashamed of being a profit-minded publisher” he says. “I like profit. If you don’t have profit, you can’t invest and build.”
Almost as soon as he began moving his personal belongings into the general manager’s office on the first floor of the Times Herald building, in fact, Singleton ordered budget cuts and layoffs. The Times Herald’s overall employment, which had climbed to 1,600, was trimmed to 1,250. Bureaus in New York City, Tyler, Lubbock, and El Faso were shuttered (though the Austin bureau was strengthened, and El Faso may reopen).
Ai the moment, Singleton says, hiss flagship newspaper, the Times Herald, te comfortably in the black after losing money during the last nine months of Times Mirror ownership. On an annual basis, in fact, the current rate of return would yield about $20 million in pre-tax profit. Not only would that figure represent a healthy 18 percent return on Singleton’s investment, it also would top the paper’s performance in prosperous years like 1984. when Times Mirror claimed profits of about S14 million.
The Herald’s new owner has made it. clear that he is pro-profit. And if the first business of a newspaper is to make money. Singleton may already have made good on the second half of his challenge. In just the first two monte, lie believes, he proved that he knows I a thing or two about how to run the Times Herald. Just wait till he has a year or so.
CHARLES DAVID BURGIN HAS MET HIS share of adversity during twenty-five years in newspapers. He was a reporter at the New-York Herald Tribune when the highly respected daily shut its doors for the last time in 1966. He was a mid-level editor at The Washington Star as financial disaster inexorably stalked that paper in the late Seventies. In January 1986, he was rudely dumped from his post as editor of the San Francisco Examiner by temperamental publishing scion William Randolph Hearst III. Burgin has suffered a few jolts, all right, but he insists none hurt him more than events during his forty-five days as editor-to-be of the Dallas Times Herald.
Burgin arrived at the Times Herald in July, in that limbo time between the agreement in principle and the final sale. He was Single ton’s choice to replace Shelby Coffey, who had been editor for only about five months.
During his first weeks in Dallas, though, Burgin was merely an observer. Though Coffey had declared he would step down to deputy assistant editor at the Los Angeles Times, he remained through final negotiations as Times Mirror’s lame-duck man in charge- “I was told in no uncertain terms that the paper was still owned by Times Mirror and I was not supposed to interfere,” says Burgin. “I was only there to watch.”
What David Burgin found himself watching–and what hurt so much-was a mass evacuation of the news staff. Almost daily, resignations came in from top talent like Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Jay Dickman, reporter Cope Moyers, and Sunday magazine editor Steven Reddicliffe. Virtually the entire business news staff and reporters covering most key beats bailed out. In a couple of instances, Burgin says, he stepped in to offer promotions or other inducements to keep especially valuable staffers. But those occasions were rare, and he had to ask permission from Times Mirror.
“It was appalling,” he sputters. “It was open panic-the ’Russians are in the lobby” kind of thing. A couple of key people left and it shook loose a couple of others. Suddenly, everybody was standing around in little groups talking about who was going where. It seemed like nobody wanted to stay at the Times Herald, and there was no good reason for them to feel thai way.”
In fact, the exodus did seem unreasonable. Burgin’s appointment alone probably should have persuaded doubters that Singleton in-tended to maintain quality at the Times Herald. Burgin, forty-seven, is widely ’ respected as the editor who took The Orlando Sentinel from mediocrity to excellence between 1982 and 1985. Former Washington Star editor Jim Bellows, often described as the nation’s most creative news executive before he unbuttoned his shirt, donned stacks of gold chains, and moved into television at “Entertainment Tonight,” has said that Burgin now is the best in the business.
Apparently, (hough. Singleton’s reputation as a newspaper doctor who performed, surgery with a hatchet on financially ill dailies overshadowed Burgin’s appeal. At least one Herald staffer (still at the paper) had been axed in an earlier Singleton takeover. Others heard from friends that the new owner relentlessly slashed staff to cut costs at nearly all of the twenty-one dailies he had purchased, in the thirty months before he bought the Times Herald. Singleton did nothing to assuage feelings of job insecurity when he asserted early on that the paper staggered under loads of fat. The fact that Coffey accepted a lesser post rather than remain as editor with Singleton didn’t help either. (Singleton claims Coffey left mainly because his wife did not want to live in Dallas.)
Burgin believes that most departing staffers fled not because they feared for their jobs under Singleton, but because they had joined one of the nation’s largest media chains, Times Mirror, and considered themselves incipient stars. “A lot of people here had the attitude that they were just stopping through Dallas on their way to the Los Angeles Times or Newsday,” he says. “I resented that more than anything else.”
Not so, says Tom McCarthy, former Times Herald state editor now with the Los Angeles Times bureau in Washington. “The only thing our association with Times Mirror meant to us was that we were pan of the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post news wire. It gave us some national exposure for our stories,” McCarthy says he began looking tor a job a month after the sale was announced because the change in ownership made the entire staff “more concerned with their own institution than with the stories that needed, to he reported. I was disturbed thai the pace we had established, was going to he tremendously disrupted, for a long time.”
Others who resigned say they did so ’ because they sensed a decline in the quality | of news coverage. From the moment of the I agreement in principle, they say, sensitive stories were held out of the paper or watered I down, apparently because Times Mirror feared incurring a libel suit that might queer the deal with Singleton. Veteran investigative reporter Hugh Aynesworth, now with the Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s Washinton Times, says he received clear signals that hard-hitting stories such as his investigation into the financial dealings of former Inter- ; First Banko!’Dallas director Edwin L. Cox Jr. were no longer wanted.
No doubt the reasons for leaving the Times Herald were as various as the fifty or so news Staffers who fled during the ownership transition. But when the exodus began, other I papers around the country helped it along.
In 1982, the Dallas Morning News instituted a policy against hiring Times Herald journalists. Sports columnist Skip Bayless’s highly publicized jump from the Morning News to the Herald, followed by Blackie Sherrod’s even more visible switch in the opposite direction, had touched off a raiding blitz that threatened to get out of hand. Morning News Editor and President Burl Osborne halted the skirmish with a general order to departmental editors: no Times Herald reporter could be interviewed who had not first resigned from the paper across town. Osborne’s order became a gentlemen’s agreement tacitly honored by both papers for three years.
When the Times Herald sale was announced, though, it was gentlemen be damned. Morning News editors put out word that they would consider anyone willing to abandon the competition. Critic Bill Marvel jumped ship. Editorial writer Lauraine Miller followed. And photographer Michael Wirtz. And feature writer Anita Creamer. And others. Junior editors say the News filled positions that were not in the budget.
“The Morning News unabashedly sent out lists of people they wanted,” Burgin asserts. “Anything to hurt us. You can take the hard line and say, ’Well, that’s just competition.’ But I’m a fairly competitive guy, and I wouldn’t have done it.”
But raiding by the Morning News wasn’t the worst of it. The Philadelphia Inquirer, the San Jose Mercury News, and The Charlotte Observer, all owned by the Miami-based chain, Knight-Ridder Inc., picked off top journalists. The San Francisco Chronicle set up a hospitality suite in the downtown Holiday Inn and interviewed every Herald staffer who cared to stop by. Times Mirror hired a half dozen to help fill positions created by a new Manhattan edition of the Long Island daily, Newsday.
“The same editors around the country who go to ASNE [the American Society of Newspaper Editors] and wrap themselves around the First Amendment and minority hiring and journalistic ethics and all the rest are coming in here and trying to destroy our staff,” says Burgin. “It was an outrageous double standard.”
When the sale of the newspaper was formally completed and Burgin officially planted his sizable bulk in the editor’s chair, the flood of resignations slowed to a trickle. By then, though, a newsroom staff that had peaked at 310 early in 1986 was down to about 240. Layoffs Singleton ordered throughout the company trimmed a few more, including long-time columnist Billy Porterfield. Burgin’s first task was to hire enough business writers and reporters to rebuild the newsroom to a lean but adequate complement of 262.
“When people were leaving, they didn’t leave uniformly,” he explains. “We lost almost everyone in some areas, like business, and didn’t get hurt at all in others, like sports. To correct imbalances, we had to go in and cut deeper and then hire back to fill the gaps. Now, irony of ironies, we are one of the few newspapers in the country that are hiring. Some of the people who left here for greener grass elsewhere have gone to papers that are going to be laying off people.”
The crisis is past, Burgin believes. Those in the newsroom too proud or too stubborn to work for a paper owned by William Dean Singleton, those who resist change, are gone. The remaining staff and a battery of new hires from respected newspapers across the country are adjusting to reshuffled assignments. The paper is ready to move, to dance to David Burgin’s tune. In the blustery style that has made him a storied character in modern newspapers, Burgin insists he is ready to show Times Mirror, The Dallas Morning News, and anybody else who wants a lesson how to turn out the best by-God newspaper Texas ever saw.
AN AMERICAN FLAG IN THE FRONT PAGE banner? Color comics? A rip-off of the Dallas Observer to replace the Sunday magazine? Is this what Singleton and Burgin have in mind when they talk about creating a new, more vibrant Dallas Times Herald? Apparently so. These are among the outward signs of a deliberate plan that is both strategy and philosophy. They want a newspaper that dares to be not just different, but startling.
Singleton especially believes that the quickest route to success at the Herald lies in designing a paper unlike anything Dallas has seen before. His harshest criticism of Times Mirror is that the company practiced “me-too journalism.” It trolled for the same readers that The Dallas Morning News sought and presented its appeals in roughly the same ways.
“When I came to Dallas and picked up the two newspapers here,” Singleton says, “I couldn’t see any difference between them. They had the same stories on the front page and their layouts were pretty much the same. Each one had a Sunday magazine and a style section and so on. They might as well have been one paper. From now on, though, no one is ever going to say that we’re just like the Morning News.”
Singleton often sounds as though he hopes to be different just for the hell of it. But behind his brash words lies a keen understanding of publishing dynamics in two-newspaper cities. Where second dailies survive, they do so by setting themselves apart from the more powerful competition.
In Chicago, for example, the mighty Tribune is the stuffy but authoritative equivalent of the Morning News. It dominates the market in both advertising and circulation. But the Chicago Sun-Times is a feisty alternative. It is breezy and colorful, and it offers twice the information about the city and its suburbs available in the Tribune. About half of the city’s readers buy both dailies, apparently because they find each useful and entertaining in different ways.
Subscriber overlap in Dallas totals only 13 percent. In other words, only about one person in eight who reads the Morning News bothers with the Times Herald, and vice versa. Singleton believes the overlap should approach 50 percent. If he and Burgin produce a striking alternative to Big Gray, the News, he believes his paper can create a vast market of two-newspaper families.
Innovations like daily color comics suggest the new style. But more substantive changes already leap out in comparisons of the front pages of the rival papers. As it always has, the Morning News emphasizes national and international news. A Reagan press conference, developments in Nicaragua, new directions in the Senate-these are the stuff of the Morning News front page. A Dallas Cowboys victory or a major decision from city council may also play, but rarely will human interest or the lighter side of the news make the cut.
Until Singleton bought the paper, the emphasis at the Times Herold was much the same. News was judged by its importance in the loftiest, most intellectual sense. Editors sought to give readers what they ought to have, never mind what they wanted. Now, though, the Dal las Times Herold front page features a guy who paid $10 for a stone worth $2 million. It highlights medical advances and university studies that, presumably, tell us something about the way we live. You may even find news of an important art exhibit or a nonsense feature about Christmas presents for cats given front page display. It is a different kind of news, an alternative to the power paper.
National and international stories still find room in the paper. In general, though, they are short, breezy, and safely out of sight. “Anything about India in a newspaper, I won’t read,” says Burgin, explaining his approach to international news. “But when Time magazine does it in 400 words, I read it. What I want to do is give readers shorter stories they’ll read instead of long, boring blocks of type.”
Among the accomplishments Burgin cites in discussing his short tenure is an increase in local news. Today, he insists, the Times Herald features much more information about Dallas and surrounding communities than before, and beats the Morning News hands down in that category. Burgin trots out two in-house studies that prove the point, he says.
Indeed, the Times Herald apparently has improved local coverage, according to the measures used in the studies. But those standards were a little peculiar. Researchers counted stories with local angles. Then they took their pica pole rulers and measured them. Voila! More stuff! Writing quality, significance, and other intangibles were not considered.
Singleton considers increasing reader overlap through lighter, more local coverage to be his greatest opportunity for growth, but youthful readers and women also are among his targets. Several studies show the paper already is stronger among female readers, though not among professional women. The same studies suggest that Dallas residents between eighteen and thirty-five ignore both papers in droves. “If we can increase our appeal to younger readers, we will strengthen an area that is very important to advertisers. At the same time, the News may lose out as its readers grow older.”
Geographically, Singleton believes his paper can make strides in the Mid-Cities and in Duncanville and other booming areas southwest of Dallas. He even hopes to in-crease circulation in the North Dallas sub-urbs, where the Morning News is strongest. “People claim the Morning News owns North Dallas,”” says the new Herald owner. “Bui that simply is not true. They only go to about 36 percent of the households up there. That isn’t saturation.”
Responds Burl Osborne of the Morning News: “There may be some way to draw boundaries and call them North Dallas where we have only 36 percent penetration, But I don’t know what that way might be.” Clearly, the new regime at the Times Her-aid plans to come out swinging against the Morning News. Competition may grow hot-ter, tougher than Dallas has seen in recent months. But don’t expect another full-scale newspaper war, says Dean Singleton. It isn’t in the cards.
A recent exchange of accusations relating to circulation figures sounded like the newspaper war of old. The Times Herald charged that Morning News figures for the six-month period ending last March- 390.275 daily and 521,727 Sunday-were ar-tiflcially inflated by 40.000 to 50,000 copies. The News retorted that Herald numbcrs-244.629 daily and 348.084 Sunday-were the ones that were jimmied up.
When an audit for the six months ending September 30 was released before (hat controversy was resolved, the Herald filed suit against the Audit Bureau of Circulation and the News. “We did so only reluctantly,”” says Singleton. “We had clear evidence thai their circulation figures were inflated, and we had to do something. Advertisers spend their money according to circulation figures. If the News increases the lead artificially, it puts us farther behind and it costs us money.”
Singleton was reluctant to reopen hostilities between the papers. He explains thai his original plan was to protest quietly, without even a mention of the audit challenge in the pages of his paper. “I would have preferred that there never he a story. Advertising Age heard about il and wrote it in a way that was partly accurate. We decid- cd we couldn’t be beaten on a story about our own company, so we wrote it too. The news desk put it on page one. I would have pre-ferred to play it elsewhere.”
Though Singleton failed to head off the page one play, he says he did tone down the language of the report, In fact, it was quotes from Burgin that Singleton (bund inflam- matorv. “He suggested that 1 ought to recon sider the remarks that were quoted.”” says Burgin, “I’m glad he did. I was really angry about the cheating that’s going on over there [at the Morning News] and I said some things that didn’t really belong in the pages of our newspaper.”
The recent audit skirmish aside. Singleton does not intend to go head to head with the News as limes Mirror did for years. Instead, he plans to operate a growing, profitable second paper. For perhaps the first time in Dallas history, the city will no longer witness the sometimes ugly spectacle of two dailies seeking to be Number One.
“If this paper happens to be the leader ten years from now ! will he very pleased,” says Singleton, “But I bought the number two newspaper and 1 paid a number two newspaper price. Probably the biggest single difference between my philosophy and Times Mirror’s is thai 1 can own the second newspaper in this city and be proud of owning it.”
Yes. that is an important difference, says Tom Johnson. Times Mirror always wants to be first. It was very frustrating to the corporation to forever chase the heels of the Morning News.
“Perhaps we should have been content to be number two,” says Johnson. “But that isn’t in (be corporate, culture, When you. adopt a winner’s strategy, it’s very difficult to settle for second place. Maybe that’s an important lesson out of Dallas.”
And maybe that’s what William, Dean Singleton understands thai Times Mirror could not accept. Maybe it is the crucial difference,, the one vital lesson. Perhaps it will be. enough to make good on his. promise, to show Times Mirror how to run the Dallas Times Herald.