William Dean Singleton discovered newspapers in the ’50s when he was a child, growing up dirt poor in Graham, Texas. Graham was a two-paper town then, as it is to this day. Singleton’s family lived about two blocks from the offices of the Graham News, and little Dean liked to walk those two blocks and hang around the city room. By the time he was 14, he was working at the News, first in the mailroom and then as a reporter.
Singleton is 36 now, still baby faced and still enthralled by two-newspaper towns. Two weeks ago he bought the Denver Post for $95 million; it was less than a week after his $150 million offer for the Houston Post was accepted. Since he started acquiring newspapers four years ago, he has become America’s newest media mogul, owning a one-third share of a 56-paper chain worth an estimated $1.2 billion. An undemonstrative sort, Singleton says he’s “excited” about his growing empire but saw no need to celebrate his recent purchases. “He never celebrates,” says second wife Adrienne.
Singleton specializes in turning around second-rank papers in two-newspaper towns, doing whatever it takes to make the paper pay off. At the Dallas Times Herald he eliminated the Sunday magazine, as well as expensive weekly fashion and society sections. Several news bureaus were jettisoned, and almost a quarter of the news staff was let go. These cuts take their toll on Singleton as well, who reportedly has thrown up after announcing layoffs.
For Singleton, the bottom line is top priority; he seems uninterested in turning his papers into political vehicles in the manner of William Randolph Hearst or Rupert Murdoch. “Singleton is part of the new breed of press lord,” says media critic Edwin Diamond. “He doesn’t have an editorial platform or political agenda because his papers are more of a business proposition.”
Singleton admits to being an obsessive worker, which helped destroy his first marriage, to a rancher’s daughter. He still puts in 16-hour days, six days a week. “I’m not very smart,” he says. “I have to work long hours to make a living.” Like almost everything about him, Singleton’s work ethic can be traced back to the town of Graham, where his father was an oil-field pumper. “I started selling [Christmas cards] door-to-door when I was 8, primarily because we didn’t have any money,” says Singleton. “In order to own anything more than just the shirt on my back, my father always said we had to go do it ourselves.”
While Singleton was working at the Graham News, his idol and mentor was Edward Harris, publisher of the rival Leader. During long talks with Harris, Singleton realized that he didn’t want to write for a newspaper; he wanted to own one. He got his chance in 1972. A three-time college dropout, Singleton, then 21 and a copy editor at the Dallas Morning News, was asked by a pair of entrepreneurs to run a new small-town weekly in West Texas called the Clarendon Press. He took the offer—which included half-ownership of the paper.
In the fall of 1975, Singleton tried but failed to resuscitate the evening Fort Worth Press, which had gone out of business that summer. Shortly after Singleton was dumped as publisher, the paper went under again. Embittered by the experience, Singleton began an eight-year apprenticeship under Joe Albritton, the Texas newspaper baron, acquiring and running papers all over the country. “It was through my years with Joe Albritton that I learned about the business side of things,” he says. “I’m a good listener. Everything I learned, I copied from somebody.”
Singleton left Albritton in 1983 and began buying up papers for himself and a new set of partners. He borrowed $200,000 from one partner to buy his own share of the Gloucester (N.J.) County Times, and has used only other people’s money ever since.
Singleton spared little time for socializing until he met Adrienne Casale in 1982. “I was a little afraid to get married again,” he says, “because I worked so much, and wives don’t really like that.” But during the summer of 1984, Singleton promised Adrienne that they would be married before the end of the year. “On the 30th of December,” reports Singleton, “she called and said, ‘I’m very disappointed because I always thought your word was unimpeachable.’ I said, ‘All right, we’ll get married tomorrow.’ We found a minister, got married at 3 o’clock, and then I had to go back to work.”
Three years later, Adrienne tries to be understanding about her husband’s passion for buying up newspapers. When he sees a struggling paper, she says, “He sees an orphan and he wants to take care of it.” Adrienne is also tolerant of Dean’s helplessness around their four-bedroom house in the Pebble Creek section of Dallas. “He doesn’t know where the garbage is, and he can barely find a glass,” says Adrienne. “I have to draw him a little map to find things”—such as their 19-month-old son, William II, who is obviously a mogul in the making. “He sat through a union negotiation when he was only 2 months old,” says Dad proudly. “He has his most fun in the newsroom.”
Just as much as Singleton had back in Graham, to which he returned last year to buy the Leader from Edward Harris. It wasn’t simply a sentimental gesture by a hometown boy who had made good. Says Singleton: “It was a good business deal as well.”