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Post Mortem?

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The problem wasn't only that it was hard to turn an uncouth girl with a Mercedes into the spark that lights the fuse of class warfare in New York, but that the whole Lizziemobile package seemed out of some other not-New York and not-American tabloid tradition. The Post itself became the story. The laughing-at-it-rather-than-with-it distinction came into play.

A week ago Saturday, there was a publisher's statement tucked away on page 20 of the paper that gave the average daily circulation for the previous twelve months as 446,000. Since earlier this year the paper was claiming a daily circulation topping 500,000, that seemed to mean that in the summer of Lizzie Grubman and Gary Condit -- as good as it gets for the Post -- sales were frighteningly light.

And then September 11.

What the Post does well is cover stories that everybody else, for reasons of snobbery and propriety, avoids. Not just cover them, but out-cover them, go over the top with them. Shamelessness is the Post's competitive edge.

That dynamic changes when there's only one story.

It's hopeless when the Post is forced to cover a story that the Times is using all its resources to cover. When a second-read paper can't offer something beyond the first-read -- when gossip and Bill Clinton and any other passing piece of nonsense loses its currency -- it's a mortal failing.

Up against the News, it was a pitiful contest, too. The News had tons of reporters and photographers against the Post's much smaller team (what has often seemed like a drawback for the News -- its union shop of countless employees, compared with the Post's economy newsroom -- suddenly paid off). But more important, the News had a certain kind of uniformed-services DNA to guide it -- the police and firemen are its hallowed beat. This story was on its turf. Whereas there was almost a sense -- which people took to calling "the tone thing" -- that the Post wasn't in New York and somehow hadn't experienced the same thing that everyone else had experienced. (When there was emotion, it was expressed as out-of-control political rage -- Andrea Peyser, who often carries the Post's tonal flag, referring to Christiane Amanpour as CNN's "war slut.")

Joking it up, at possibly the most un-jokey moment in New York history, seemed to be a key aspect of its competitive strategy: ASH-HOLES was the Post page-one headline on a dubious story about people selling WTC ash.

The day after the attack on Afghanistan began, the Post went with a sports-page-type pun -- TALI-BAM! -- for the wood. The next day it was KABULSEYE!

It was a drunk at a funeral.

This cannot be making Rupert happy.

The Post has been the sentimental heart of News Corp. in America. Undoubtedly, it reminds Murdoch that he's a newspaper man.

But my guess is that Murdoch is not that sentimental.

Tough times tend to be especially tough on Murdoch. News Corp. owes more money, has thinner management, and is more dependent on advertising than most other giant media companies. What's more, it counts on growth and expansion as the essential tool of its financial engineering. His acquisition of the Chris-Craft stations -- together with News Corp.'s position as the largest owner of television stations in the nation -- in a rapidly deteriorating advertising market, already has the company in a big and tightening squeeze.

On the other hand, Murdoch, who faced bankruptcy during the last recession, has always been a forceful and unsentimental retrencher.

In other words, it is one thing to support a paper that loses, say, $20 million a year (the consensus number among industry observers) when the rest of your operation is healthy and growing. It's another thing to support a paper whose losses, in the midst of the most difficult media-market conditions the city has perhaps ever faced, will exponentially increase, when the rest of your operation is facing a dramatic downturn.

So let's assume that the Post will lose much more this year than it did last year, that its political currency will continue to weaken, that it will be unable to meet the competition on the only story that anyone is interested in. Add to that the mounting pressures at News Corp., the promise that Newsday will return to the city sooner rather than later (Newsday or the News are likely buyers of the Post's new color-press plant in the Bronx), and the certain fact that Rupert isn't getting any younger (it is, after all, his sentimental attachment).

And consider that if the Post was once the main outpost of Murdoch's presence and power in New York, he now has two television stations in the city (channels 5 and 9) along with the Fox News network.

Of course, he has kept it going for an awfully long time. And there is something of a tradition of supporting non-viable media properties (i.e., The New Yorker) because they give their owners social standing and other perks. There is a media business theory that accords such vanity properties even more security than self-supporting ventures. Under this theory, it is possible that the Post means so much to Murdoch that reason will never prevail.

But it is going to be a hard and transforming twelve months in the media business -- the WTC will likely have further victims. The Post will, though, I suppose, survive until at least November 16 -- its 200th-birthday celebration.

E-mail: michael@burnrate.com


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