Final Deadline

David Burgin is legendary as a rough-and-tumble newspaper editor. But the legend is full of astonishing contradictions, and its last chapter may include the outcome of a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by one of his proteges at the Oakland Tribune.

Things only got better for Burgin when the Tribune Co. sent him to Orlando, Fla.

Burgin's first move was to change the name of the paper. The Sentinel Star was, at the time, nicknamed "The Slantener Slur." So he changed it to the Orlando Sentinel. And he added a readout under the name: "The Best Newspaper in Florida." It was Burgin at his best, audacious, stirring things up, giving his staff something to fight for.

"He opened all sorts of bureaus," says Jim Heaney, a former Sentinel reporter who now works as an investigative reporter at the Buffalo News. "He spent money like crazy. There was this guy, a budget manager in the newsroom, who quit because he couldn't handle the fact that Dave spent so much money whenever he thought there was a good story at stake."

"He was a newsman's newsman," Heaney says. "He wasn't one of them, the bean counters."

In 1985, with everything on the rise at Orlando, Burgin says he had an offer to run the New York Daily News for the Chicago Tribune Co. He turned it down, a move he regrets to this day. "I could have punched my card into the journalism hall of fame," he says. "But I didn't buy the New York thing. I couldn't play golf there."

Just then, William Randolph Hearst III stepped in with an offer to make the Examiner hip, young, and exciting. The company played off Burgin's reputation as a shit-kicking editor, announcing his arrival with black-and-white TV commercials that had Burgin terrorizing the staff.

"Boom, boom, boom," the footsteps fell as the ad showed the Examiner newsroom. "The Examiner has a new editor." Staffers cringe under a desk. A young Rob Morse runs and hides. "His name is Dave Burgin."

The ad won a Clio award.
But Burgin wasn't around long enough to win anything. His tenure would last a mere seven months. The ad was still running when Hearst fired him.

After numerous disagreements over money and hiring, the clincher -- the admitted bonehead move of Burgin's career -- came when Hearst invited him to New York to meet the board of directors of the Hearst Corp. Burgin's attorney advised him not to attend because he had not received an employment contract. "It was stupid advice. He [Hearst] should have fired me. I had it coming. I admit it."

With a healthy settlement from Hearst, Burgin jumped back into journalism as a consultant for the Atlanta Constitution. A short time later, he received calls the same week from the Chicago Sun Times and Dean Singleton. Singleton said, "Take my job now or lose it." And the Sun Times just wanted to talk. So in 1986, Burgin was back with Singleton.

Burgin was named editor of the Dallas Times Herald, which Singleton bought at the same time he promised to make the city the seat of his newspaper empire. But two years later, Singleton sold his interest and bought the Houston Post. Burgin followed and was made editor. Both papers would eventually close, but not before Burgin and Singleton beat it out of Texas -- Singleton to Denver, Burgin to the ANG in 1990.

The good feelings Singleton and Burgin left behind might fit on the head of a pin.

And Burgin seems to know that while his role in Texas was strictly editorial, he is saddled all the same with the stench of death and disappointment. "I swear Dean Singleton has broken my heart so many times I can't count them anymore," he says.

Nonetheless, he remains a willing participant in Singleton's newspaper adventures -- and a willing defender of his employer. " 'When Times-Mirror [cuts costs and downsizes] it's just good business.' It's bullshit," Burgin says. "It's one of the most unfair raps I've heard. None of that is Singleton. He isn't that kind of guy."

The City of Oakland would come to disagree.

The Oakland Tribune for years wrestled with a problem that nearly every major urban newspaper faces. It's the bad marriage between predominantly white, upper-middle-class suburbs and the minority-populated inner city.

The money is in the suburbs.
The two communities have little in common. To cover both with one newspaper is a bit like trying to drive an airborne submarine.

In 1983, Gannett announced its intention to sell the Oakland Tribune. Robert Maynard, then publisher, wanted to make it work. He bought the Tribune for $22.5 million, with a $17 million note from Gannett and the rest financed through a Canadian bank. It was the first such management-inspired leveraged buyout -- a sale from corporation to individual ownership -- in history.

A former White House correspondent for the Washington Post and head of affirmative action for Gannett, Maynard had already made a name in the East Bay. He was the first African-American to edit a major daily newspaper when he came to the Tribune in 1979.

Early on, Maynard attempted to compete for the suburbs, opening bureaus around the East Bay. But it was too much too late. The war for suburbia had been lost long ago.

Urban flight took hold during the 1960s and '70s. As a great portion of the middle class moved to the suburbs, retailers followed. At a time when the Los Angeles Times and other major papers were expanding into the suburbs, former Tribune owner William Knowland had decided to concentrate on the urban center of Oakland. That left the burgeoning suburbs to Dean Lesher, owner of the Contra Costa Times, and Floyd Sparks, who owned a string of papers in Alameda County. They got rich, and the Tribune lost the suburbs forever.

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