British publisher agrees to buy N.Y. Daily News

March 06, 1991|By Thomas Easton | Thomas Easton,New York Bureau of The Sun

NEW YORK -- Daily News Alive! Maxwell to Paper: You're Mine!

The Daily News, the New York newspaper facing imminent death because of a protracted dispute between the city's powerful labor unions and the Tribune Co., was given a reprieve last night when management announced that it had signed a letter of intent to sell to Robert Maxwell, a British press baron.

Nicknamed "the bouncing Czech" by English satirical magazines because of his origin and his financial reputation, Mr. Maxwell was the only candidate still standing as the paper neared a March 15 deadline set by the Tribune Co. to be sold or close.

Last week, final efforts to mediate the 4-month-old strike had broken down, --ing any prospect that the paper would continue operating under current management. Expectations that a buyer for the 71-year-old paper would emerge were barely flickering.

Mr. Maxwell, owner of the Mirror tabloid in London and the Macmillan Inc. publishing company in the United States, was considered a long shot. After a protracted acquisition spree during the 1980s, Mr. Maxwell was reported last year to have announced he would cease acquisitions in favor of reducing debt.

Months earlier, he had issued a press release indicating he would buy three supermarket tabloids, the Globe, Sun and National Examiner, but the deal never went through. Local investment bankers suggested he was unable to line up financing.

The Daily News, which until recently was the largest general-circulation paper in the country, has been on the market for years without attracting a credible buyer.

A long history of questionable practices by both management and labor, as well as shifting demographics, had eroded a franchise that was once among the most profitable in the world. The Chicago-based Tribune Co. said the paper lost $115 million last year.

Since the commencement of the strike on Oct. 25, losses averaged $700,000 a day and circulation had fallen from more than a million to 600,000. Most of those papers were being distributed by homeless men who received newspaper bundles free and charged a dime less than the 35-cent cover price.

Star columnists had left for other papers, as had dozens of lesser-known reporters who had spent decades mastering New York's labyrinthian government and were adept at getting scoops.

Yesterday's agreement followed a week of discussions between Tribune management and a representative of Mr. Maxwell, said News Publisher James Hoge. "I'm very hopeful," Mr. Hoge added.

The letter of agreement precludes the Tribune Co. from bringing in other buyers, but it is subject to a number of conditions, including union agreements and a definite sales contract. Mr. Hoge declined to reveal any of the terms of the sale. Mr. Maxwell will meet with union representatives tomorrow.

Reports of the Maxwell offer were greeted joyfully on the sparse picket line in front of the Daily News building in midtown Manhattan. "I think its exciting," said Harvey Araton, a striking sports columnist. "Most of us never believed the Tribune was serious about a settlement. No one expected management to get off its union-busting agenda. No one doubts the unions will have to make concessions, but the hope is Maxwell will negotiate with respect for the unions and it will come down to numbers, not philosophy."

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