Post Mortem?

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).

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.


Post Mortem?