Monday, June 05, 2006

The Long Arm of Hearst: Grass-Fed Beef, Fancy I-talian Equipment, Leon Hale and … Dean Singleton

We recently had a bit of fun mocking and belittling Houston Chronicle publisher Jack Sweeney’s explaining-away of the newspaper’s continuing decline in circulation as measured by the Audit Bureau of Circulation, just as we did six months earlier on the occasion of the previous ABC report, and just as we’ll probably do six months hence on the occasion of the next report (we’re comforted by routine and like an easy target).

While the bad numbers may eventually bode ill for the monopoly franchise, we know that today they’re the mere splashing of small, frothy waves against the iron sides of a slow-moving behemoth of a battleship. Daily newspapers, especially those without competition (which is about, um, almost all of ’em) continue to enjoy the sort of margins not usually found outside the loansharking industry.

Of course, you never really know for a fact about the Houston Chronicle, because, since the mid-1980s or thereabouts, it’s been part of the privately held New York-based Hearst Corp. But not to worry: Hearst is doing all right, according to this article in Monday’s New York Times.

You might say better than all right: Hearst has built “resplendent new headquarters” at 8th Avenue and 57th Street---a glass-and-steel monstrosity slapped atop the company’s vintage 1928 building---and paid for it in cash. $500 million in cash (we, too, like to close as many transactions as possible with cash, although we’ve never been able to scare up enough to spring for a skyscraper in midtown Manhattan). The new digs include a 168-seat theater with “top-end acoustics” and a gym with “fancy Italian equipment,” among other amenities.

The Times article offered many interesting tidbits. We were aware that the Chronicle was but a small cog in the great Hearst machine, and that the company has purchased sizable interests in a dizzying array of television and new media properties, but we didn’t know, for instance, that the Chronicle loiters under the same corporate umbrella as Floor Covering Weekly, nor were we aware that Hearst sells “ketchup and grass-fed beef” from its California ranches.

But perhaps the most interesting tidbit of all concerned Hearst’s ongoing relationship with Dean Singleton, the notorious baby-faced Texas newspaper killer. A few months ago Hearst announced what the Times described as a “complex deal” that would give the company a 20 to 30 percent stake in Singleton’s MediaNews Group. The cost was $263 million. The Times did not specify whether that transaction was handled in cash. Of course, whatever complexity there was in the arrangement was no doubt rendered wholly incomprehensible by the Hearst announcement.

Locals of a certain age or with long memories will recall that it was Singleton who put the Houston Post down, as they say out in the country. As it was reported by the Chronicle---there being no Post to report on its own demise---Singleton had simply shuttered the joint on his own and Hearst had come along and snapped up all the assets---save, alas, for Lynn Ashby---as if Singleton had held a garage sale and Hearst was the only buyer.

But a few months after the closure, Singleton added much fragrant detail to the Hearst press release when he returned to Houston to speak to a group of Harvard alums at a private downtown club. Singleton thought his talk was off-limits to the press, but thanks to this intrepid bit of reporting he revealed to the world that he had actually reached an agreement with Hearst to sell the contents of the Post’s closets eight long months before the morning he blindsided his unsuspecting employees at 4747 Southwest Freeway. It’s nice to see a long-term relationship continuing to bear fruit.

We’ve gotten this far without quoting or making reference to Citizen Kane, and while the temptation to do so is great, we’ll take our leave with this glimpse of Citizen Singleton, one of our only two, as he sat in the cafeteria of one of his now-dead newspapers, eating a meal that appeared to consist solely of limp leaves of Romaine lettuce in a Styrofoam bowl. No dressing, no tomatoes, no radish, no onion.

Just lettuce.

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