Surrounded by Singleton: Scooping Up the San Jose Mercury News and the Contra Costa Times Gives Dean Singleton a Mammoth Cluster of Newspapers in the San Francisco Bay Area and Poses a Significant Challenge to the San Francisco Chronicle

By Layton, Charles | American Journalism Review, June-July 2006 | Go to article overview

Surrounded by Singleton: Scooping Up the San Jose Mercury News and the Contra Costa Times Gives Dean Singleton a Mammoth Cluster of Newspapers in the San Francisco Bay Area and Poses a Significant Challenge to the San Francisco Chronicle


Layton, Charles, American Journalism Review


Most major newspapers came of age in big cities, surrounded by smaller papers in the suburbs and outlying towns. These rivals may have nipped at their heels and cut into their circulation, but they never threatened the big papers' market dominance.

But now, in the San Francisco Bay Area, a cluster of suburban papers is rising up to challenge, and perhaps one day overshadow, the San Francisco Chronicle.

This summer, a series of newspaper sales involving six media companies--Knight Ridder, McClatchy, Hearst, Gannett, Stephens Media Group and MediaNews Group--will reshape the newspaper business in the Bay Area. Unless those transactions are blocked by government antitrust action, one group of local papers, owned by MediaNews, will more than double its circulation overnight, becoming larger and more potent economically than its big-city rival, the Chronicle. What this means for advertisers, readers and the newspapers' employees remains to be seen. The one certainty is that plenty of people are worried.

The architect behind the new juggernaut is William Dean Singleton, the innovative, somewhat flamboyant 54-year-old chief executive of MediaNews, a Denver-based company that presently owns 51 dailies in 13 states. Singleton began preparing the ground for this little revolution in 1985, when he bought three small family-owned dailies in the towns of Hayward, Fremont and Pleasanton, in Alameda County just across the bay from San Francisco. Later, he bought more small papers in that area, and by 2002 he had stitched nine of them together into what he calls the Alameda Newspaper Group, or ANG.

Because they are close together, six of these papers share newsgathering, production, distribution, accounting and administrative facilities, a strategy known as clustering. They also offer combination advertising deals. It is possible to think of them, in fact, as one big paper with six zoned editions. Their news coverage is heavily local.

The ANG papers and the Chronicle are quite different, and until now they haven't seen each other as principal rivals. ANG makes little effort to cover San Francisco--it doesn't even have a reporter assigned to City Hall. And the Chronicle can't put enough people into ANG's communities to compete for highly local news. In fact, the Chronicle has cut back on editorial zoning in the suburbs in recent years (see "The Chronicle Chronicles," October/November 2005). "Zoning didn't work for us very well," says Phil Bronstein, the Chronicle's editor and executive vice president. "We are a regional paper."

So the Chronicle's biggest turf battles have been with Knight Ridder, whose two area papers, the Contra Costa Times to the east and the San Jose Mercury News to the south, have a combined daily circulation of 422,000, which tops the Chronicle's 398,000. The combined circulation of all nine ANG papers comes to not quite 300,000, so MediaNews has been a presence but not the biggest star in the galaxy.

But when all the pending deals are signed, MediaNews will own not just the ANG papers but also the Mercury News and the Contra Costa Times, which means it will dominate not just one Bay Area county, as now, but three contiguous ones. So instead of three big dogs in the yard, there will be just two, and the Chronicle will be the smaller one. (Also in the mix is the San Francisco Examiner, a free daily owned by billionaire Philip Anschutz.) The papers owned by MediaNews will have almost 80 percent more circulation than the Chronicle. They will have more newsroom employees (about 770 compared with some 400 at the Chronicle) and perhaps more advertising clout--and they will have the Chronicle surrounded.

Here's how all of this came about:

In March, Sacramento-based McClatchy struck a deal to buy Knight Ridder, the nation's second-largest newspaper company, which is headquartered in San Jose. McClatchy then announced that it would immediately resell 12 of Knight Ridder's 32 daily papers to help pay off its debt from the deal. …

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