When Denver press baron William Dean Singleton bought the Long Beach Press-Telegram just before Christmas in 1997, he gave everyone in the newsroom 15 minutes to re-interview for their jobs.
Feature writer Debbie Arrington, who had followed her father and grandmother onto the newspaper's payroll and never planned to work anywhere else, was stunned.
"Your job is on the line, and you had to make an instant impression that you were worth keeping," Arrington recalled. "The older copy editors who went through the process, they all felt like they were being sent to the glue factory."
Arrington survived the culling only to see the paper's pay, benefits and morale fall sharply. She left after a year.
But even as the newsroom ranks thinned and circulation stalled at about 100,000, the Press-Telegram's profitability soared, according to Executive Editor Rich Archbold, producing a handsome return for Singleton's MediaNews Group Inc., now the nation's seventh-largest newspaper chain, with daily circulation of 1.8 million.
Singleton's presence in California is felt beyond Long Beach. His company owns the Daily News in the San Fernando Valley as well as a raft of smaller papers in the Bay Area and the Inland Empire. All told, MediaNews sells about 900,000 papers a day in the Golden State -- more than any other company.
Last week he emerged as a likely bidder for at least some of the 12 papers that McClatchy Co. of Sacramento plans to sell as part of its acquisition of Knight Ridder Inc. The dozen include the San Jose Mercury News, the Monterey County Herald and the Contra Costa Times, which have a combined daily circulation of about 480,000.
Singleton has toured the Mercury News and the Philadelphia Inquirer -- another of the Knight Ridder papers McClatchy plans to unload -- and is known to be particularly interested in the Contra Costa paper.
Analysts said a price tag that would probably exceed $1 billion could dissuade Singleton from bidding for all 12 papers.
"It would be tough" for him to raise that much money, veteran industry analyst John Morton said. On Tuesday, a McClatchy spokeswoman said the papers were unlikely to be sold to a single buyer.
Singleton's interest in the Knight Ridder papers has rekindled a debate over his attitude toward a business whose practitioners often see themselves as serving interests other than the shareholders'. Critics say his growing empire bleeds newspapers of money and talent, all but stealing their souls to pump up profit.
"The way Dean Singleton approaches the bottom line can be a real detriment to quality journalism," said Diane Brooks, who worked for him in the Bay Area and is now a reporter with the Seattle Times.
Yet to hear Singleton and his top editors tell it, he is simply practicing tough love in an industry badly in need of a dose of reality. In an era when newspapers are losing readers and advertisers to the Internet, Singleton has taken big risks by buying papers no one else wanted, then using drastic measures to make them profitable.
If some of the patients have died on the operating table -- the once-proud Dallas Times Herald and Houston Post among them -- the surgeon says he shouldn't be faulted for trying.
"It hasn't been about the money," Singleton, 54, said last week in the mild drawl left over from his small-town Texas childhood. "This is what I like to do. This is my passion."
And Singleton contends that he does care about quality journalism -- or at least his definition of it. He just believes that turning a reasonable profit comes first and that the most expensive and ambitious stories generally belong in the biggest papers, which should have the most money to spend.
"You can't generalize on 'the quality' without understanding the market that the newspaper is supposed to serve," Singleton said. "What we try to do in every market is edit a newspaper that fits the market it serves."
Singleton himself may be of two minds on the matter. By some accounts, there has long been a hidden tension between the business mogul known for cutting budgets and the inner journalist who, as a 6-year-old, would wander into the pressroom of the tiny paper in Graham, Texas, to mooch a candy bar or a Coke.
He loved newspapers "like some kids love trains or cowboys," said Dave Burgin, who met Singleton three decades ago and served as his top editor at several papers. "Here he is an adult, and he hasn't changed in any way. The guy is just a total newspaper freak."
The son of a hardscrabble oil-field worker, Singleton became a newsman early, writing sports for the local paper at 15. While attending junior college in East Texas, he worked as a night city editor at the Tyler Morning Telegraph -- displaying talent that someday could have taken him to the top editing ranks of the New York Times, according to then-colleague Randy Harvey, incoming sports editor at the Los Angeles Times.