In many communities, if you buy a 100-year-old house, preservation laws restrict what you can do with it. You can't flatten it and build a new faux Tudor McMansion, for example. If the land you buy has old growth trees on it, you are sometimes restricted in what you can do with that land. It's not easy to get permits to cut down 2,000-year-old trees to build that house. And if you find a Western Lily on the property, you might as well donate the land to the Nature Conservancy.
Now that so many people put newspapers on the endangered species list, I think it's time we accorded them the restrictions we put on many private properties in this country once we acknowledge the public interest in how they are used.
I would like to see William Dean Singleton, for example, have to go before city commissions with an environmental impact report after he buys any more community papers in this state and tries to gut them.
His company, MediaNews Group of Denver, already owns 29 California newspapers, including the Times-Standard, the Redwood Record in Garberville, Fortuna's Humboldt Beacon, the Willits News and the Ukiah Daily Journal. Now it is in talks to acquire Freedom Communications of Irvine, which owns 10 more newspapers in this state, including the Orange County Register and, closer to home, the Willows Journal and Orland Press-Register.
Now, this news comes almost exactly one year from when a host of banks, led by Bank of America, saved MediaNews Group from drowning by taking over the company. So those 29 (soon to be 39) California papers are owned by the banks whose irresponsible business practices resulted in the foreclosure of thousands of single-family homes in this state.
Singleton should be a newspaper builder, not destroyer. He started out as a reporter at age 15 and started his first community weekly when he dropped out of college. But once he became successful he became the Mr. Potter of the news world, gobbling up troubled newspapers and slashing their budgets to make them as profitable as possible, caring not a whit for the quality of his publications or the quality of life of his employees.
The announcement that MediaNews is in talks to acquire Freedom Communications came with the news that Singleton is stepping down as CEO of his company. (He will remain chairman of the board.) Before the banks took it over, he was the majority shareholder.
That he is stepping down came as no great surprise. A CEO who bankrupts a company should step down, shouldn't he? But to me, the reason why he was stepping down came as a shocker. He needs more time to focus on mergers and acquisitions. If it weren't for acquisitions, MediaNews wouldn't now find itself owned by a banking syndicate. Back in 2006, after a long, long string of acquisitions, MediaNews Group spent $1 billion, in borrowed money, to buy four newspapers, including the San Jose Mercury News and the Contra Costa Times. A year ago, it was able to reduce the $930 million it still owed down to a mere $179 million by giving the banks ownership in trade for the debt.
I guess Singleton learned some lessons from that experience. I would have learned a different lesson. After getting sick from too much wine, I stop drinking wine for a while. My sister had a bout of bad clams early in life and is still leery of them. But the lesson Singleton learned is this: Sometimes a company is in such bad straits it will sell itself to anyone who can take the debt off its hands. So just as soon as he found his credit cards unfrozen he was off to the newspaper shopping mall.
As I worked out my thoughts for this column I kept tripping on Singleton's name. Maybe it was because I started the column with old growth trees. Or maybe it was a Freudian slip. But the name "Charles Hurwitz" kept coming out of my mouth. Remember him? He was the guy from Texas who bought up our sustainably run timber company and slashed and burned our old growth trees until there were almost none left. Then he bankrupted the company. But at least he walked away and left Pacific Lumber in the hands of a company that promises to protect the old trees. In Singleton's case, he bankrupted our newspapers, sold off a big chunk of them to the banks that loaned him the money to buy the papers in the first place and with money back in hand he's out for more. Oh, I forgot to mention that individually, many of the small papers MediaNews owns weren't in the red. They simply could not generate the amount of profit the parent corporation needed to siphon out of them to pay its massive debt. Traditionally, no one expected small newspapers to make a hell of a lot of money. They were often launched as pet projects of semi-crazy locals who felt their community needed a newspaper of its own.
The shame of it is that the communities that birthed and nurtured these newspapers don't recognize the public value in them so no one sits up in the branches or chains themselves to the gates. Many of these small papers are historic and they are being gutted even as we walk by. It saddens me to think that I am the only one who seems to care. But then again, since Singleton owns all those papers, maybe lots of people care. We don't know because there are too few independent papers left to print the story.
Marcy Burstiner is an assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at Humboldt State University. She started out as a reporter at a community daily in Carbondale, Ill., even then owned by a large corporation. She welcomes the new editor of the North Coast Journal, Tom Abate. And she hopes that if Singleton's realtor drops by and sticks his business card through the mail slot, the owners of this paper chuck it in the trash.
She would like to thank Hank Sims, who first cajoled her into doing this column back in 2006, bugged her every month to keep it going and, because of his sharp eyes and keen insight, kept her from making some embarrassing mistakes.