N.Y. Daily News to change hands next Wednesday

March 15, 1991|By Thomas Easton | Thomas Easton,New York Bureau of The Sun

NEW YORK -- Ownership of the Daily News, New York's self-proclaimed "hometown paper," will be transferred next Wednesday from Chicago to Europe under a definitive agreement for the paper's sale announced yesterday by the Tribune Co. and purchaser Robert Maxwell.

The deal concludes a brutal labor-management struggle that pitted the city's tough press unions against an equally tough Midwestern management over the fate of a tabloid that until recently had the largest circulation, and financial losses, of any metropolitan daily in the country.

The battle culminated in a costly 4 1/2 -month long strike that cost the Chicago-based Tribune Co. $750,000 a day. Initially adamant about retaining control, the Tribune Co. finally acceded to a sale, saying its only other option was a shutdown that would cost it millions in contractual severance payments.

A search for a buyer brought only Mr. Maxwell, owner of Macmillan Publishing in the United States and the Daily Mirror newspaper in London. Mr. Maxwell, whose own finances are cloaked by several interlocking private institutions, including a Liechtenstein foundation, last attempt to enter U.S. journalism was a bid for three supermarket gossip sheets, but the deal collapsed because of financing problems.

Asked if he was to pay any money for the News, Mr. Maxwell responded succinctly: "No." Published reports say he will receive $60 million from the Tribune Co. in exchange for assuming $100 million in liabilities, but no firm financial details have been released.

Mr. Maxwell fits within a longstanding New York tradition of larger-than-life moguls whose love for self-publicity is exceeded only by the obscurity of their finances. He has received a euphoric reception in the city.

A tentative accord between the Tribune and Mr. Maxwell was struck early last week, and in several frenetic days of negotiations he managed to reach agreements with leaders of all the major Daily News unions. Yesterday, he explained his ability to succeed with labor where the Tribune had failed by saying, "The history and the problem of mistrust and distrust went so far and so deep."

The purchase, Mr. Maxwell added, remains contingent on the union rank and file's acceptance "speedily and with generosity" of the harsh new terms approved by their leaders. Included are provisions to cut the News' payroll by almost one-third.

The unions "had to give up a lot, but they recognized they needed to, otherwise there would be no jobs, and there would be no News," Mr. Maxwell said.

Approval is expected. "People are pretty satisfied. Otherwise, they would be picketing," said John Stapleton, a 47-year News' employee who was one of only two men standing behind picket lines outside the News' midtown headquarters yesterday.

Mr. Maxwell enthusiastically predicted the paper was "in danger of making a profit in the first year." Major advertisers "are ready, willing and able to come back massively," he said, citing the department stores Macy's and Alexander's in particular.

But numerous hurdles remain for the paper. Editors attending yesterday's press conference indicated next week will be "chaotic" as returning strikers take seats next to other long-time employees who crossed picket lines to produce the first post-Tribune paper Thursday. "What we will strive for is to let bygones be bygones," Mr. Maxwell said.

That may not be enough. The strike devastated the paper's circulation, aggravating a decades-long trend.

"The News has a chance, but it has been losing market share for 20 years and that wasn't solved before the strike, and it will be worse after it's over," said John Morton, a newspaper analyst in Washington. "If advertising comes back, it is conceivable they will go into the black, but I expect it won't be of long duration."

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