ink-stained wretches

Even in Dismal Print Climate, New York Post and Daily News Couldn’t Get Along

Rupert Murdoch has never been one to let his politics get in the way of his business, a fact that has occasionally made for strange bedfellows, as when he endorsed Hillary Clinton for Senate in 2006. In 2008, he made an unsuccessful bid for Newsday in order to merge it with the Post. But possibly the strangest of Murdoch’s prospective bedfellows is Mort Zuckerman, owner of the New York Daily News — or as Post media columnist Keith Kelly and “Page Six“‘s Richard Johnson have often referred to it, the Daily Snooze.

In the summer of 2008, after failing in his bid to acquire Newsday from the bankrupt Tribune Company, Murdoch initiated talks with Zuckerman’s people aimed at working out a cost-saving arrangement. That Murdoch would even consider such a deal is symbolic of his efforts to square his love for the Post with the paper’s dismal finances. The Post will lose as much as $70 million this year, according to sources. The circulation strategy — first championed by his son Lachlan — of cutting the cover price to $0.25 from $0.50 backfired after the Post tried raising it back to $0.50 only to see circulation plunge from some 750,000 copies to about 500,000 in just the past three years. The Post now trails the Daily News after briefly overtaking it.

As the talks proceeded, there were even signs of détente in the Murdoch-Zuckerman war — in 2009, Kelly made only a single reference to the “Daily Snooze.” Murdoch’s emissary was Gary Ginsberg, his longtime PR adviser and a prominent Democrat (once a Clinton White House lawyer). Negotiations dragged on over issues like where to print the papers (both Murdoch and Zuckerman had dropped a couple hundred million on new presses in recent years). A couple of sources even suggested that Murdoch might have considered dropping the Post’s weekend edition in a combined deal, given the Post’s weak weekend readership and limited advertising.

But in the end, the hatchet was simply too huge to be buried. According to sources involved in the talks on both sides, discussions between News Corp. and Zuckerman collapsed several months ago, never making it far enough for the moguls to appear in the same room. “It turned out to be too complicated, the cultures were too incompatible with too much bad history,” one source explained. When I reached Zuckerman by phone on the gondola at Aspen on December 30, he batted away the notion that he would have ever signed a deal with Murdoch. “There were sporadic and occasional talks,” Zuckerman said, “but it’s not surprising they have gone nowhere.”

To an ink-stained tabloid warrior, even pondering such a move is sacrilege, a sign that the old world is gone forever. And possibly, that’s why Col Allan, the editor Murdoch brought over from Australia to beat the Daily News in 2001, is said to be considering retirement.

Update: Through a spokesperson, Allan responds: “Wishful thinking at the Daily News.”

Even in Dismal Print Climate, New York Post and Daily News Couldn’t Get Along