The Shell Game

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Dean Singleton’s newspapers a shallow grave for journalism

By Mark Cromer

Their faces shadowed in the dim glow of the bar’s low-watt lanterns, several figures huddle at a corner table, radiating an air that is two pours depression with a splash of 120-proof defiance. Amid the tall glasses, cigarettes and the hushed tone of clandestine conversation, replete with glances over their shoulders to see who may have crept within earshot, it could well be a scene from the Paris Underground circa 1942.

There is talk of subterfuge, backstabbing and betrayal, flashes of righteous anger followed by a weary sense of fatalism.

Yet it’s not the City of Light, but rather Los Angeles, 2008, and the resistance guerillas at the table are journalists from media mogul Dean Singleton’s chain of regional daily newspapers that stretch from San Bernardino to the shoreline of Manhattan Beach.

Life for reporters, photographers and editors in Singleton-occupied newsrooms throughout Southern California has grown increasingly dark over this past month, with successive layoffs and firings that have hollowed out what little remained of once proud hometown newspapers.

Where the Tribune Co. learned that top editors at the Times were willing to quit rather than oversee debilitating cuts in the newsroom, Singleton has faced no such defiance among his company men.

The grisly job-letting brings to fruition the worst fears of ‘El Dino’—as the Texan publisher is sometimes derisively known—since he started buying newspapers here almost a decade ago, bleeding dozens of veteran journalists from the Daily News to the San Gabriel Valley Tribune to the Daily Bulletin in the Pomona Valley and all the way east to The Sun in San Bernardino.

With job security plummeting faster than paid circulation, newsroom fratricide has made an ominous appearance.

Staff photographer Walt Weis, a 26-year veteran of the Daily Bulletin, was summarily fired on February 29 by editor Frank Pine, for allegedly freelancing video footage to a television network affiliate—ostensibly a competitor.

Weis, who after three decades as an award-winning photographer for the newspaper was making an annual salary of just $46,000, which actually made him one of the highest paid employees in the newsroom. He said another employee, whom he named, made the allegation to management in a gambit to save his own job from the looming layoffs.

“It gave Pine and [editor] Jeff Keating an excuse to fire me, save more money and look good to corporate. And it got [the employee] a pat on the head,” Weis said. “How does he sleep with himself? He’s probably rationalized it as ‘every man for himself.’”

Other Daily Bulletin employees, who spoke on the condition that they not be identified by name out of fear of retaliation by management, said that the circumstances surrounding Weis’s firing and the wave of layoffs that followed has left remaining staffers in bitter despair.

“It’s really, really bad right now,” one said. “They pay us the equivalent of In-n-Out cooks, literally; they gut the newsroom, firing some of the best people we’ve got; and then turn around and expect us to be passionately motivated about our jobs.”

Reporters with university degrees and multiple-years experience on the beat are paid as little as $26,000 a year at Singleton’s newspapers.

An unrepentant media baron who doesn’t hide his garish wealth, Singleton hasn’t minced words for reporters struggling to get by at his newspapers. “I was at the same place they were. I started at small papers and went up the ladder as I got experience,” Singleton told Columbia Journalism Review in 2003. “You gotta climb the ladder. That’s what the business has always been about.”

Five years later, Singleton’s reporters in Southern California are looking for a wrung to hang on to.

While painfully deep cuts have been made across the nine daily papers in Singleton’s Los Angeles Newspaper Group, the strip-mining of the Daily Bulletin perhaps best signifies the fate of all newspapers—and newsrooms—when they are operated in a profit-maximizing business model that discards any real notion of their traditional role in the community.

Launched in 1990 as the merger of the morning Daily Report in Ontario and the afternoon Progress Bulletin in Pomona, the Daily Bulletin at its inception claimed a circulation of 100,000 copies that sprang from a state-of-the-art building that housed its giant press under the same roof as its editorial and office staff.

The Daily Bulletin’s newsroom was alive with more reporters than the paper had desks or computers for, prompting an allotment of “shared” desktops for staff. Feature writers, weekly supplemental writers, specialized beats, general assignments, news assistants, archivists and more were all apart of the paper’s robust engine. Bureaus were opened, competition brought circulation battles and foreign wars were covered with staff writers.

When Singleton bought a controlling interest in the newspaper in 1997, it was part of a blitzkrieg that before long led him to own every daily outside of the Times—which helped him finance the deal for the Daily News in order to keep another serious journalistic franchise out of its backyard (mission accomplished)—the Register in Orange County and the Press Enterprise in Riverside.

With each acquisition, Singleton and his lieutenants talked of streamlining and consolidating operations as a way to make the newspapers more efficient and free-up resources that they insisted would improve coverage and boost readership.

The reality has been a slow-motion implosion of hiring freezes, budget cuts, positions eliminated through attrition, firings and now layoffs. All the way through, editors like Steve Lambert have fired off email memos to staffers that dress up throttling the last cent of profit from the dying paper as some unavoidable eventuality.

One memo Lambert sent on August 20 of last year cited the need to find “more efficiencies” in “potential synergies” to face “economic realities.”

Staffers say the reality is that a skeleton crew of reporters at the Daily Bulletin continues to toil away covering multiple beats each at the largely empty building that’s now for sale on Fourth Street in Ontario. The copy desk moved to San Bernardino, as did the printing of the newspaper. Paid circulation has evaporated to about 50,000 copies daily, according to staffers and Weis.

The staff is waiting for news on where they’ll be moved to, bracing for the worst.

“It’s a ghost town now,” said Weis. “They’ve arrived at the ultimate ‘consolidation’: they put a local story on the front page with a photo, fill the rest of the shrinking news pages with wire and copy from sister papers, and sell it to readers as their ‘hometown newspaper.’”

While many newspapers all over the nation struggle to adapt in a technological world they hardly imagined just a decade ago, Weis and his former colleagues say what’s happened at Singleton’s newspapers in Southern California runs far deeper than a generational shift of readers to the Internet.

“We can’t do the kind of great enterprise reporting that we need to give readers under these conditions,” one reporter said. “Whether they are reading it in print or online, what are we giving them to read everyday?”

As the journalists still working for Singleton send out their resumes in between filing their stories, Weis is hitting the gym more often, pondering what his future holds now that he’s in his mid-50s and looking for a job.

“Look, twenty years ago, I could have gone across the street to the Tribune, or down the road to the Breeze, or maybe a little further down the road to another paper and been hired on the spot,” he said. “There was competition then. Journalists were screwed the minute Singleton was allowed to buy nearly every paper within a hundred miles and start squeezing the life out of them.”

This article was first published in the LA Weekly.