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Facing Pressure to Close, New York Post Tries Retrenchment

THE financial retrenchment designed to save the New York Post goes into effect this week, resulting in steep pay and benefit reductions for employees of the nation's oldest continually published daily newspaper. The upshot: A third of the Post's news department has quit, including some well-known members of its sports staff, a mainstay of the feisty tabloid. Despite the new financial package, there is widespread concern among media experts and advertisers about the paper's long-term prospects for survival. Last week, Post owner Peter Kalikow, a local real-estate magnate, won from Post employees a broad financial package designed to save more than $17 million by slashing the workweek from five days to four and mandating a 20 percent pay reduction. In turn, Mr. Kalikow promised the Post's union members a 20-percent ownership stake in the paper.

Given the economic downturn in the greater New York area, which is resulting in a drop-off in advertising for both newspapers and magazines, ``the long-term prospects of the Post do not look very good,'' says Mitchell Stephens, a professor of journalism at New York University and author of ``A History of News,'' an analysis of the press.

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In addition to economic problems, says Professor Stephens, the Post must grapple with structural changes now taking place within the US press in general, as more and more big-city dailies are going out of business.

Still, for all of its difficulties, the Post has repeatedly astounded its rivals with its gritty resilience. Known for blood-and-thunder headlines, solid investigative reporting, and a conservative editorial page, the Post has survived in a city that has boasted scores of newspapers over the years. Experts say it was this doggedness that once again saved the Post last week, when employees were told to either accept pay cuts, or the paper would be closed.

``There's something special about the Post,'' says Post columnist Cindy Adams, noting that nobody wants to claim responsibility for closing down the newspaper that was founded by Alexander Hamilton in 1801.

Kalikow, who bought the paper for $37 million from publisher Rupert Murdoch in 1988, is said to be sustaining loses of more than $27 million a year.

Media experts say the Post's challenges mirror four major trends now under way in the United States:

1. Big-city dailies continue to either merge or go under. Most cities now have only one or two papers. New York has remained a rare exception, with four major dailies: the New York Times, the Daily News, and New York Newsday, along with the Post.

2. Meanwhile, new ethnic and specialty papers are gaining readers. In New York, there are some 15 ethnic dailies aimed at the hundreds of thousands of Asian, Hispanic, Russian, and African immigrants who have settled here in recent years, says Gary Hoenig, editor of News Inc., an industry trade magazine.

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``The Italian-Jewish-Irish readers who traditionally supported big-city dailies like the Post have moved to the suburbs,'' says Mr. Hoenig. Indeed, press watchers here believe that the New York Daily News, facing mounting financial losses said to be running at about $45 million annually, may soon face the decision to retrench or close up shop.

3. National dailies are becoming increasingly popular, including USA Today, which is finally garnering some profits after years of start-up losses, as well as Investor's Daily, a national business paper based in Los Angeles.

4. Weekly papers continue to grow. ``But they aim at smaller markets, where television has not yet reached for advertising dollars,'' says Stephens.

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