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Zuckerman Faces Tough Job Modernizing New York’s Daily News

January 9, 1993

NEW YORK (AP) _ Vietnam is still two nations on the big revolving globe in the lobby of the Daily News building, and Ho Chi Minh City is labeled Saigon. Sri Lanka is Ceylon and Bangladesh remains East Pakistan.

The globe’s outdated geography symbolizes the challenge faced by the News’ latest owner, Mortimer Zuckerman: modernize a newspaper that, by his assessment, has suffered an owner that milked it, an owner that raped it, a strike that traumatized it and a bankruptcy that crippled it.

Optimists point to the following:

-Zuckerman, who purchased the newspaper Thursday in a bankruptcy sale, is a developer with a fortune of several hundred million dollars and a reputation for improving publications such as the Atlantic Monthly and U.S. News & World Report.

-The News’ weekday circulation, just under 800,000, is second only to The New York Times among the city’s four general interest dailies, and far larger than that of its tabloid competitors, the New York Post and New York Newsday.

-A recession that wiped out some big advertisers appears to be ending. Macy’s, for example, reported a significant increase in sales last Christmas over 1991.

But pessimists note that the News, which lost $7 million last year and $100 million over the last decade, can be expected to change direction about as fast as a battleship.

When, they ask, will the News be able to print color, like Newsday does? When will subscribers, whom advertisers love, account for the bulk of its circulation, as at The New York Times?

How long will it take to rebuild a staff demoralized by Thursday’s ″bloodbath″ in more than 170 people were laid off?

And who will replace departing editor James Willse?

″Zuckerman has a formidable task. He must buck historic changes in New York City as well as the newspaper business,″ said John Morton, a media analyst. ″That task has frustrated good people in the past. The Tribune Company is no amateur.″

But it lost money running the News, as did British tycoon Robert Maxwell, whose family lost the paper after he died at sea and subsequently was exposed as a financial charlatan.

Zuckerman insists the formula for success is relatively simple: With ″new columnists and features and good writing and reporting″ and ″the kind of sassy humor and edge that is a part of New York life,″ you grab the average New York working family.

In a letter to readers prepared for Sunday’s editions, he wrote: ″The new Daily News will build on the best traits of the old. ... It will be tough, sassy, full of outrage at injustice and street smart.″

Not so easy, Morton predicted.

″A lot of those families already read something else, and it’s hard to change their habits. And a lot of the people who work in New York live in the suburbs. Historically that’s where the News is weak, and where advertisers are strong.″

While few would deny that Zuckerman could improve the News’ editorial content, that may not be its big problem.

Gary Hoenig, editor of News Inc., a news industry trade publication, thinks that in laying off editorial staffers, ″Zuckerman went after the wrong people. The real costs are in production and distribution. He has inherited a vast manufacturing problem.″

Zuckerman got the News by promising the drivers and pressmen he would not cut their ranks until after a new printing plant is finished. He also pledged to buy new color presses within 30 months, and agreed to acquire a site for them within a year.

Some observers think that before Zuckerman breaks such costly ground he will reopen negotiations with the unions and try to cut his production labor costs sooner rather than later.

But meanwhile, Hoenig said, ″the clock is ticking and the News falls farther behind its competitors. It takes years to build a plant, and then you have to learn how to use it.″

There is, of course, the possibility Zuckerman doesn’t really view the News as a money maker, but rather as a sort of vanity press on a grand scale.

″Maybe he just wants to be a big shot New York publisher,″ Hoenig mused. ″That’s how a lot of papers got started years ago. Some of those tycoons turned out to be good publishers.″

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