Boston — For weeks now, Bostonians have been watching a real media event unfold in their midst - and the star of the drama is one of the two remaining metropolitan daily newspapers here, the Boston Herald American.
The morning tabloid will either cease publication as of Dec. 3 or be taken over by the internationally known but controversial Australian publisher, Rupert Murdoch.
Mr. Murdoch's billion-dollar communications holdings already include the New York Post, which is openly sensational in its news coverage; the Village Voice; New York magazine; the Star, a national gossip-oriented weekly that is usually sold at supermarket checkout counters; 18 newspapers in Texas; and the respected Times of London. Most of his properties, however, are in Australia.
A third possibility, little discussed here so far, would be for the paper to close and its assets then be bought by Murdoch or some other party.
Ceasing publication would mean the loss of 800 jobs at the Herald American and would make Boston the latest city with one metropolitandaily. As recently as the mid-1950s, Boston had seven dailies. The prospective buyer has indicated he wants to cut operating expenses by $7 million a year.
If the Herald goes out of business, it will fulfill the long-held expectations of most Bostonians, including many of its own employees. By its own admission, the paper has been losing money for years, but lately the losses have reached $1 million a month.
Its recent shift to sensational news coverage has resulted in some circulation gains - the paper sells about 240,000 copies a day - but reduced advertising revenues.
Closure also would add the Herald to the growing list of big-city dailies that have failed across the United States in the past 18 months: the Washington Star, Philadelphia Bulletin, Cleveland Press, Minneapolis Star, and Buffalo Courier-Express.
The Hearst Corporation, owner of the Herald American, announced in mid-November it had agreed in principle to sell the paper to Murdoch for $1 million in cash and up to $7 million more from future profits. But the sale is contingent on Murdoch's ability to negotiate new collective bargaining contracts with the 11 trade unions represented at the Herald. Contracts with most of them have long since lapsed, and Hearst executives said in a statement that ''necessary steps to cease publication on Friday, Dec. 3'' would be taken if negotiations for new ones fail.
They are proceeding unevenly. Despite daily meetings with labor leaders, tentative agreements have been reached with four of the unions. Meanwhile, the Boston Mailers Union, which claims it would lose 16 of 51 jobs under Murdoch ownership of the Herald, has unanimously rejected the first contract proposal.
Complicating the negotiations, executives of the rival Boston Globe announced Nov. 16 that they expected any concessions by Herald unions to apply to their paper, too. Murdoch representatives promptly protested the Globe action as ''a reckless attempt to interfere.''
Boston University journalism Prof. Jonathan Klarfeld, who has followed the situation closely, expects a ''hardball newspaper war'' in Boston if Murdoch takes over the Herald.
''There is a minimum of a quarter of a million people in Boston who want to buy a newspaper that isn't the Globe,'' Professor Klarfeld says. ''My guess is that Murdoch sees double that circulation potential.''