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Murdoch in Talks : Maxwell May Buy N.Y. Post From Rival

December 18, 1987|PAUL RICHTER | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — British media magnate Robert Maxwell said Thursday that he is considering buying the money-losing New York Post from Rupert K. Murdoch, who has for years been his bitter rival in the British newspaper business.

Maxwell, who has recently sought to buy several American companies, told a lunch meeting in London that the Post is among "one or two" U.S. properties that he is "seriously looking at." He will pursue the deal if "the price is right and we are satisfied that we've got something to contribute," he told a meeting of the Assn. of American Correspondents.

Maxwell also said he was considering the possibility of starting a nationwide color tabloid newspaper in the United States that would compete with USA Today.

A Murdoch spokesman in New York confirmed that Maxwell had already had several "cordial" meetings with Murdoch, who must sell the newspaper by the end of March under Federal Communications Commission rules barring the ownership of a newspaper and a television station in the same market. Murdoch purchased WNYW-TV in New York last year when he acquired the Metromedia television chain.

Maxwell has asked to see financial statements for the newspaper but must first sign a confidentiality agreement, the Murdoch spokesman said.

Waiver Sought

The Post, a newspaper that heavily promotes gossip and stories about celebrities, has been losing an estimated $10 million to $12 million a year. The paper's circulation has fallen to about 550,000 from a peak of more than 1 million, and to cut costs it has recently scaled back its distribution and the number of editions it prints.

While Murdoch has solicited buyers for the 186-year-old paper, he has simultaneously applied to the FCC for a permanent waiver of the ownership rules, arguing that the paper is likely to go out of business if he is forced to divest it.

Analysts said that while a number of newspaper companies have examined the company's books, the major American newspaper publishers are unlikely to want to buy it. The paper circulates most heavily among lower-income New Yorkers who appeal less to advertisers, and it faces strong competition from two other tabloids, the New York Daily News and New York Newsday.

Even its printing press and distribution facilities are older and probably not likely to provoke interest, analysts said. "I don't know any domestic publisher who thinks he can make money from it," said newspaper consultant John Morton of Morton & Co. in Washington.

Several New York area businessmen are rumored to have expressed an interest in buying the paper, including real estate developers Donald Trump and Peter Kalikow, and Leonard Stern, who owns the Hartz Mountain pet-products company as well as the Village Voice newspaper. None of the three could be reached for comment.

Analysts speculated that Maxwell might want to buy the newspaper as a first step in building an American newspaper chain or simply to gain the prominence provided by ownership of a newspaper in the nation's biggest market. But several were skeptical that Maxwell would pursue the deal.

"With these two, anything is possible," said Charles Crane, analyst with Prudential-Bache Securities in New York. "But I'd say it's still a low-percentage bet."

At the London meeting, Maxwell said his organization had done detailed research and was convinced there was room in the United States for a national, color tabloid "better than USA Today, and we know how to do it," United Press International reported.

But, according to the wire service, Maxwell said he was still a long way from deciding to go ahead with the tabloid project.

Maxwell Communications Corp. last year made an abortive $2-billion attempt to take over the publishing company Harcourt Brace Jovanovich and this year acquired a large block of stock in Bell & Howell, a publisher and maker of information systems.

The two businessmen have run afoul of each other on several occasions, including when Murdoch foiled Maxwell's attempt to buy the News of the World, a racy British paper that was Murdoch's first newspaper in England.

Maxwell, who owns the London Daily Mirror, has acquired several British companies in the past two years, including Pergamon Orbit Infoline Ltd., United Press Holdings Ltd., and a 70% interest in Nimbus Records Ltd., a compact disc maker. He owns a major U.S. printing business.

In addition to newspapers, Murdoch's communications interests include magazines, televisions stations, the 20th Century Fox movie studio and the book publisher Harper & Row.

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