Zuckerman makes news in New York: Larry Black on the mystery behind the motives for a property developer's plan to take on America's largest big-city paper

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The Independent Online
MORT ZUCKERMAN, the man who seems certain to succeed Robert Maxwell as owner of the New York Daily News, had been up all night last Wednesday trying to seal a deal with the newspaper's journalists, and he admitted he was feeling 'very punchy'. But on the verge of finally winning control of the paper, he was nonetheless pacing the aisles of a New York bankruptcy court the next morning, unable to contain his boyish excitement.

If all goes according to plan, 55-year-old Mortimer Benjamin Zuckerman - property developer, literary socialite, celebrity bachelor, Washington pundit and owner of two influential American magazines - will soon be the publisher of America's largest big-city tabloid. Outside the courtroom, the press wanted to know why he wanted the bankrupt, down-market, money-losing Daily News so badly, agreeing to terms rejected the week before by Conrad Black, a rival bidder. For one thing, had not Mr Zuckerman's long-time editorial guru, Harold Evans, the former editor of the Times, said he could never see Mort - 'an intellectual' - engaged in popular journalism?

'Harry Evans is my teacher,' a bleary Mr Zuckerman responded, fumbling with a locked exit from the corridor. So did this mean that it was Mr Evans, a contributing editor to his US News & World Report, who suggested he buy 'New York's Picture Paper'? 'Harry Evans is the greatest newspaperman I've ever known,' Mr Zuckerman stone-walled, as he finally found an unlocked exit.

Certainly, the logic behind Mr Zuckerman's long crusade to buy the News escapes most people who know him well. The economic reasons for the bid at least are far from clear, even at the dollars 18m ( pounds 10m) price he is paying. The tabloid may once have been America's best-selling daily, circulating more than 1.2 million copies a day. But high manning costs, a series of strikes and a slumping local economy have crippled the paper financially. And in recent years, the News has been routinely 'scooped' by its rivals, the New York Post and Newsday, driving away its previously loyal readers.

With a post-Maxwell circulation of 750,000, the Daily News is losing millions of dollars each month. To survive in New York's highly competitive tabloid market, Mr Zuckerman - a businessman with no daily newspaper experience - will have to succeed where the likes of Rupert Murdoch, the Chicago Tribune Company, Mr Black and Maxwell have either failed or demurred. All say the key to making money in New York is distribution. But to prevail over Mr Black's richer bid, Mr Zuckerman had to ally himself with the delivery drivers' union, accepting their expensive monopoly over the paper's distribution.

'Say what you will,' Mr Zuckerman protested in a later interview, 'but these guys still deliver almost a million papers a day, rain or shine. I've found them very dedicated, very committed to the survival of the Daily News.'

Mr Zuckerman admits he has never had to deal with print unions in the past. 'But you might remember that there are such things as unions in the construction business in New York.'

At US News, which he bought in 1984 for dollars 163m, his close involvement in the content of the Washington newsweekly raised many hackles, costing him four editors before he installed himself as 'editor-in-chief'. At the Atlantic Monthly in Boston, which he bought five years earlier, he refused to pay shareholders the second instalment of the purchase price, arguing in a lengthy court case that they had misrepresented the company's finances.

'Everything is in the editorial product,' he has said, pledging to find the best talent available for the Daily News - although he has also dropped an original demand for the right to sack reporters without regard to seniority. But beyond promising to hire 60 new editorial staff in the next 18 months and building a new colour printing plant, Mr Zuckerman remains vague about his plans to produce profits at the News.

He notes that he has confounded the sceptics before, both in building the 85 office towers his Boston Properties owns, and in turning around his magazines. As a developer, he is no Donald Trump; his buildings tend not to be lavish 'trophy' projects, but mid-range towers that have produced suprisingly high and reliable profits.

'Some of the best things I achieved I've done in the face of conventional wisdom,' he has said.

A better explanation for buying the Daily News is Mr Zuckerman's apparently insatiable desire for public acceptance, a trait more than one press biographer has tried to trace back to the early loss of his father in Montreal, or to anti-Semitism at McGill University, where he was head of his class. Critics and even friends variously describe him as a social climber, self-absorbed, restless, and in one Washington Post profile, 'an insecure man-child'. 'Mort needs the approval of the world on a continuing basis,' a close friend from Boston told the paper.

Being a wealthy property developer in America has lost him more influential friends than it has made him - after seven years he is still fighting a group of New York notables over his plans to build a skyscraper on the edge of Central Park. He does not want 'to be remembered as a landlord', said the publisher of a small chain of weekly papers Mr Zuckerman once invested in.

Journalism - Mr Zuckerman says he has been a 'news addict' since he was 13 - has on the other hand served as an entree into the elites of Boston and Washington. The novelist Mordechai Richler, another English Quebecer, has said Mr Zuckerman bought the Atlantic 'for its cachet'. 'A Jewish kid out of Montreal, he was buying the Wasps' old-world literary magazine,' Richler said. (Mr Zuckerman left Montreal in 1957 to study law at Harvard University, and decided to stay in Boston when he got his first job at a property firm owned by a friend's father.)

But neither of his magazines is widely circulated in New York, and his reputation has largely been confined to the gossip columns and social pages. He owns homes in Georgetown in Washington, Fifth Avenue in Manhattan and Southampton on Long Island, where he plays softball every weekend with well-known journalists and writers like Carl Bernstein, Ken Auletta and Tom Brokaw. His affairs with women like Gloria Steinem and Nora Ephron are well reported - as were Ms Steinem's references to him in her recent autobiography, in which she said her relationship with a man like Mr Zuckerman was 'a final clue that I was really lost'.

Mr Zuckerman promises a Daily News that is 'vibrant, energetic, populist' - and yes - 'popular', and publishing New York's biggest tabloid will help give him the last word on such matters, if his stewardship of US News is any guide.

'I'm not interested in owning,' he told one interviewer when he bought the newsweekly. 'I'm interested in writing and editing.'

(Photograph omitted)