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Publisher Dean Singleton dramatically expanded his L.A. newspaper empire last week by buying the 202,381-circulation Daily News and setting himself up as a major challenger to the Los Angeles Times in the county’s growing suburbs.

With his previous purchases of the San Gabriel Valley Newspaper Group and the Long Beach Press Telegram, Singleton now controls newspapers with combined circulations of 430,644.

But while the Long Beach and San Gabriel papers have limited ability to expand geographically, the Daily News purchase gives Singleton a platform to expand in the Santa Clarita and Antelope valleys.

“We plan to grow the Daily News, grow our franchise and utilize our clustering strategies,” said Singleton, chief executive of Denver-based MediaNews Group. “And we’re going to cover the hell out of the suburbs.”

He did not rule out other newspaper purchases in the region, but said: “All we’re actively working on right now is to grow the Daily News’ presence to the north. I’m not currently looking at buying another paper at this time.”

The sale is expected to close in the first half of January, according to Howard Soloway, an attorney who handles the estate of Jack Kent Cooke, whose death last April led to the sale.

No purchase price was disclosed, although newspaper industry sources have speculated that the paper would sell in the $100 million range.

Cooke bought the paper in 1986 for $176 million, and invested perhaps $60 million or more in new presses and facilities.

The “clustering” strategies have emerged as Singleton’s trademark means to create cost savings at his newspapers. Essentially, it means eliminating duplicative functions in papers that share the same regional base.

But Singleton said the clustering of functions and facilities among the papers he now holds in Los Angeles County would not be as drastic as the changes he engineered for the San Gabriel Valley Newspaper Group last year.

Under his ownership, editorial and physical operations at the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, the Pasadena Star-News and the Whittier Daily News were significantly consolidated.

“The Daily News, as well as the Press-Telegram, will remain independent news operations,” Singleton said. “They will share some sports and county coverage, but each paper serves a specific suburban community and will retain its own identity.”

Despite best intentions, clustering can affect the quality of local coverage the niche in which the Daily News and the Press-Telegram have excelled.

“An attempt to consolidate editorial functions usually means that each community is less well served,” said Bryce Nelson, chairman of graduate studies in journalism at the University of Southern California.

After the sale closed last week, Singleton met with staff members at the Daily News and offered assurances that every employee would be kept on at current salaries and benefits.

That came in contrast to his actions at the Press-Telegram, where employees must interview with a management team from the MediaNews Group in hopes of keeping their jobs. In response, the Los Angeles Newspaper Guild has filed an injunction aimed at blocking the sale.

“The reason for the different approaches is because the Daily News downsized in the early ’90s in response to the restructured L.A. economy,” Singleton explained. “The Long Beach Press-Telegram, on the other hand, did not downsize. As a result, their expenses did not match their revenues.”

Another question is editorial oversight. Dennis Britton, editor of Singleton’s Denver Post and a long-time senior editor at the Los Angeles Times, has been mentioned as a candidate to oversee Singleton’s Los Angeles newspapers.

“You’re not hearing that from me,” said Britton, who was passed over for the top editor’s job at the Times in 1989.

Though declining further comment, Britton indicated he was impressed by his publisher’s ability to put together a major newspaper group in the shadow of the 1.1 million-circulation L.A. Times.

Singleton would not comment on an overall editor for the group. He did say the editorial team would remain intact at the Daily News, but that there would be changes at the Press-Telegram.

Industry experts said that while consolidation will make the Singleton papers healthier financially, it will not necessarily hurt the circulation and advertising base of the L.A. Times.

“The Daily News will be able to offer regional and national advertisers a bigger footprint in the area, and I expect that we will see it more aggressively pursue advertising,” media analyst John Morton said. “However, I don’t believe that it will have any significant impact against the L.A. Times.”

Nelson agreed that Singleton’s papers would not undermine the Times’ advertising or readership base.

“For Singleton to compete with the L.A. Times and other news agencies, he will have to spend money to enhance the quality of the papers rather than focus on cutting costs, which he is what he is known for,” Nelson said.

Singleton himself said he does not think his operations will compete with the Times, saying that his business strategy will be to target advertisers that have not traditionally used the print medium. He plans to use the papers’ expanded penetration and package advertising deals to attract the advertisers.

“We’re in a different business than the L.A. Times they’re the preeminent metro paper,” he said. “There is not a battle between us, and we can co-exist.”

That may change if Singleton were to add other papers to his quiver such as the Los Angeles papers owned by Copley Newspapers the Santa Monica Outlook, the Torrance Daily Breeze and the San Pedro News-Pilot.

Herbert Klein, editor-in-chief of San Diego-based Copley, confirmed there were discussions four years ago with Cooke representatives about buying the L.A. papers and operating them jointly with the Daily News.

But Klein said the talks did not lead anywhere and “we don’t have any of our papers for sale” at this time.

Staff reporters Larry Kanter and Frank Swertlow contributed to this report.

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