Tabloid rivals declare war in Big Apple

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They love nothing better in New York than a good, public dust-up. The town's two tabloids are never without a ferocious clash to broadcast, whether it is Rick Lazio bullying Hillary Clinton in a debate or Mayor Rudolph Giuliani leaving his wife. But now the tabloids are at each other's throats as rivalry turns to all-out war.

They love nothing better in New York than a good, public dust-up. The town's two tabloids are never without a ferocious clash to broadcast, whether it is Rick Lazio bullying Hillary Clinton in a debate or Mayor Rudolph Giuliani leaving his wife. But now the tabloids are at each other's throats as rivalry turns to all-out war.

Hostilities began last month when the Daily News, owned by property magnate Mort Zuckerman, announced plans to launch a give-away afternoon newspaper, named Daily News Express.

Within days, the Rupert Murdoch-owned New York Post fired back with the usual salvo - a massive price cut. The Post costs 25 cents (about 17p) a day, a 50 per cent discount. Since Tuesday, free copies of the new Express are available at about 80 city commuter hubs between 4pm and 7pm. New Yorkers haven't had a read for the evening train home for more than a decade.

So in Murdoch versus Zuckerman, who will be left as New York's tabloid king? "It is not about money," says John Morton, a newspaper industry analyst. "It's about image and about being the publisher of a major newspaper in the world's most important city." Well, it is a bit about money. Both titles are losing lots of it.

The Post, edited since last year by a Briton, Xana Antunes, is thought to bleed $10m a year. The pain will get much greater for everyone, thanks mostly to Mr Murdoch.

And it is about circulation. Once above the one million mark, the News is struggling not to sink below 700,000 in weekday sales. With its evening give-away gambit, the News is praying it can stop the slide.

At first sight, the Post should be the underdog. Its circulation in the six months ending in March, was 436,500 on weekdays, still far behind the News. But while the News has been sinking, the Post has been gradually gaining. And the Post, with a strong edge in celebrity news and Wall Street stories, has been making more noise. It consistently has cleverer front page headlines - "Ted not Fonda Jane" was how it greeted the recent Ted Turner-Jane Fonda marital split - and sexier gossip. The editorial confidence of the Post is most obvious in its coverage of the Senate race, the most interesting in the land.

The Post, under Mr Murdoch's direction, has gloried in bashing the First Lady, or through the relentless reactionary diatribes of its columnists. It is no secret that Mr Zuckerman is a Clinton acolyte, who frequently socialises with Bill and Hillary.

Also, there is the matter of pocket depth. Each owner may be as determined as the other. Mr Murdoch regained control of the Post in 1993 when it was bankrupt. The News was similarly broke, following the demise of its owner, Robert Maxwell, in 1991, when Mr Zuckerman snatched it in 1993.

But, in the media universe, Mr Zuckerman is but an asteroid beside the planet that is Mr Murdoch. He is rich, but not nearly as rich. And if he wonders how effective price-cutting can be, Mr Zuckerman need look no further than London and 1993, the year Mr Murdoch began discounting The Times. Before the price went up again, sales had soared by some 400,000.

Invisible to most New Yorkers, so far, is a shadow combatant, the Swedish media mogul Jan Stenbeck, the man behind the Metro free newspapers he has been seeding in cities around the world. Recently, he launched an evening Metro in Philadelphia.

The News insists it was concern about a Metro invasion, rather than its circulation war with the Post, that prompted its Daily News Express.

But the News might come to regret getting into a fight with Mr Murdoch. "I am not optimistic," says Mr Morton. "It could have very harmful effects on the Daily News."

And if the News is pummelled into the dust, all New Yorkers will be losers too.

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