Hard times force selling of Britain's oldest daily, The Times of London

Want to buy a couple of newspaper -- lock, stock, and barrel? Britain oldest daily, The Times of London, and its sister The Sunday times, are up for sale. If no buyers are found by March 1981, they will close.

That sudden decision, announced to a shocked group of union leaders and journalists Oct. 22, comes less than a year after the owners, the Canadian-based multinational Thomson newspaper empire, lost L40 million ($96 million) during a strike that closed the papers for 11 months.

Nicknamed "the Thunderer," The Times is among the world's most prestigious newspapers, respected as a paper of record and renowned for correspondence columns that discuss Latin poetry, English gardening, or society scandal with equal aplomb.

But it has been plagued by labor disputes centering on its printing facilities. "The major reason behind the decision is the continuing troubled history of industrial relations, which goes back over many years," said Gordon Brunton, chairman of Thomson British Holdings. In recent weeks, machine-room disputes on The Sunday Times have caused 1 million copies to be lost.

Potential buyers are already being mentioned, including controversial Australian publisher Rupert Murdoch and London publisher Sir James Goldsmith. Another interested party, may be the journalists themselves. During the strike, they formed a company, Journalists of The Times (JOTT), to buy the paper when Lord Thomson threatened to close it.

Among the journalists themselves, however, there is a feeling of relief that the ax has finally fallen. Foreign editor Charles Douglas-Home of The Times told the Monitor that the change will allow the paper to "achieve the restructing which has become essential."

"I hope it will lead to a renaissance," he added. But he is resigned to the fact that "We will be on the streets in march" -- although back at work, he hopes, by April or May.

One of the problems with the Thomson management, say journalists, is that it has tried to operate the paper from Canada through a cumbersome chain of command.

What is needed, says Mr. Douglas-Home, is "radical restructuring" -- including the shedding of the entire Fleet Street printing operation, which has a reputation for internecine union wars and exhorbitant costs. He hopes the paper will resume with contract printers working outside of London.

Harold Evans, editor of The Sunday Times, said that the papers, minus their printing operations, would be "totally commercially viable." His counterpart on The Times, William Rees-Mogg, is leading efforts to put together a syndicate to buy the papers.

Under present management, the papers forecast a loss of about L15 million ($ 37 million) this year. The Thomson organization, which has oil and other interests, has advanced more than L70 million ($170 million) since it acquired the papers in 1966.

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