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Post Mortem?

Rupert Murdoch has been willing -- for fun and political profit -- to lose millions to keep his pet tabloid going. Now, finally, his patience may be running out.

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I think Murdoch is going to pull the plug on the Post.

This hypothesis was suggested to me by a knowing media pal who said he had no inside information, hadn't heard any rumors, but he had a hunch. I scoffed, too.

When I floated the theory past Mort Zuckerman, the owner of the Daily News, the Post's main competitor, he dismissed it: "Why would Murdoch want to do that?" But then, several days later, when I tried it out on another highly knowledgeable New York newspaper source, he said he'd just been talking to Mort and Mort had been saying, Murdoch may just have had it.

Before you know it, the idea crosses over from the counterintuitive -- why would Murdoch close the Post now if he hasn't already closed the wildly unprofitable paper? -- to the perfectly intuitive. The Post has reached a plausible, even likely, end.

This isn't just a business analysis. On that basis, the Post should have ended years ago. Rather, it's a looser issue of the paper's declining ability to perform the functions that Murdoch keeps it going to perform. Here's the assumption: Murdoch will always support the Post, no matter what it costs him. But why do we trust that assumption? If it gets to be an annoying, no-fun enterprise, on top of intractably losing millions, why wouldn't he kill it?

Conditions in the media business in new York have obviously changed since September 11 -- and the biggest story going, the only story really, doesn't fit the Post's manpower resources or its sensibility. But even before that, there were shifts that clouded the value and the joie de vivre of owning the Post.

Murdoch's always been fairly open about his willingness to lose money on the Post -- it's a powerful political lever for him, useful in support of his own fierce positions and favorite candidates (helping D'Amato win over Abrams, Giuliani over Dinkins, Pataki over Cuomo).

The Post could really give a scare. There was no way to go toe-to-toe with the Post because you could never top it. If you tried, it would punish you -- ceaselessly, in many instances. And its mockeries were world-class. (My personal favorites are its fat pictures -- cross the Post and its photo editors are sure to find a picture that shows you as little more than molten, erupting tallow.) Just by engaging the Post, you were diminished by the fun it would have dissing you back.

But then there was the Hillary victory. She not only survived the Post's heckling and the fat pictures but, arguably, was buoyed by it all. Post reporters, columnists, and editorial writers rendered the case against Hillary so relentlessly, so biliously, that you could only reasonably conclude, well, she's not that bad. In a beat, the Post seemed to go from significant political force in New York to bully-boy (and self-parodying) crank; her victory defanged it.

If you're Murdoch, what you have been paying for are the fangs.

And now there's Sharpton (Freddy Ferrer, in an editorial cartoon, kissing Sharpton's fat buttocks), whose inexorable rise seems to directly track the fever of the Post's attacks.

The Post, in its over-the-topness, is coming to reliably articulate the exact positions that a great number of people want to oppose. It may well be helping Murdoch's foes -- which is a very poor return on his investment.

Murdoch is obviously in a bad humor about the Post. He's acting like a profit-minded executive at the end of his tether with an underperforming business unit.

There have been the management changes: He's on his third editor in two years. Then there's the cost-cutting: He's axed lots of the higher-priced talent (columnist Jack Newfield, and managing editors Stuart Marques and Marc Kalech). Then there's the up-and-down price of the paper -- cutting the price by a quarter on the newsstand (although, oddly, home-delivery copies are still marked 50 cents), then recently hiking the Saturday paper back up a quarter. What's more, he's put his son Lachlan in charge. This may be, of course, a sign of his filial commitment to the paper. Equally, it may be a fatherly test: Can the son save the paper -- or, if not, can he make the hard choice and do what must be done?

There's an endgame sense about the present remedies, a one-last-roll-of-the-dice feeling. This is what CEOs do when their patience runs out -- they try radical, disruptive solutions that, if they don't work, precipitate the end.

The plan, when he promoted Xana Antunes from business editor to editor-in-chief of the paper two years ago, seemed to be to mix, or temper, its tabloidism with lots of local business news and softer features. The demographic goals were clear: attract the chattering classes plus women.

Under Antunes, the Post became the media paper of record, reaching, certainly, its highest point of influence. But the structural problem still remained: It was a second-read paper. Nobody reads just the Post. You read the Times, or the News, or Newsday, and then, if it catches your eye, the Post. And here's the truism that has reshaped newspapers over the past half-century: Nobody advertises in a second-read.

Six months ago, Murdoch fired Antunes and installed Col Allan, an Australian tabloid star. The notion seemed to be to make a grand stand and reach for the kind of big tabloid play that in the days of Wingo had pushed the Post up to the million-circulation level. Dump the chattering classes and the women and return to the OTB line. Lizzie Grubman became the first front in the campaign (along with putting Mafia daughter Victoria Gotti, with her jaw-dropping column, at Jack Newfield's old desk).


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