Who Speaks for the Post?

The brassy New York City daily has seen a protracted and loud ownership tussle

NEW Yorkers and media experts will be focused on a special bankruptcy court in Manhattan today. It will decide whether the New York Post continues to publish and, if so, who will become the official owner of the country's oldest continuously published daily paper.

Meantime, many New Yorkers, who thrive on a good shouting match, appear to be relishing the rebellion under way in the newsroom of the feisty Post.

Reporters and editors are angered that their new owner might be real estate and parking-lot magnate Abraham Hirschfeld, a colorful figure here who might have stepped out of the pages of a Damon Runyon short story about quintessential New Yorkers.

But press room rebellion is actually only a sideshow here to the deeper challenges facing the Post: inadequate revenues stemming from declining readership, insufficient advertising, and rising costs. Daily newspapers no longer compete just with each other, says Mitchell Stephens, chairman of the journalism department at New York University. Now they must face an array of competitors, including television, magazines, cable news programs, and papers catering to ethnic groups.

The Post - which has a daily circulation of about 500,000 - carries a special financial burden: its current owner, real estate developer Peter Kalikow, has filed for personal bankruptcy.

Earlier this week the Post filed for bankruptcy protection to shelter its own assets including the paper's building in lower Manhattan and its printing presses. The bankruptcy court has let Mr. Hirschfeld take over management of the paper.

In recent weeks most New Yorkers had assumed that the new owner of the Post would be Steven Hoffenberg, whose Towers Financial Corporation, a debt collection firm, has made a $6 million loan to the Post. But Mr. Hoffenberg's assets are essentially frozen, stemming from a legal contest with the US Securities and Exchange Commission. The SEC alleges that he fraudulently sold more than $400 million in unbacked securities.

As of this writing, all of the major parties to the Post drama are expected to go back before the bankruptcy court today and analysts say that anything is possible.

GOV. Mario Cuomo and New York State's development office have been reportedly working around the clock to find an appropriate buyer for the tabloid, established in 1801 by founding father Alexander Hamilton.

"The story at the Post almost looks like a comedy," if it were not so "sad for all involved," says Phyl Garland, a professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

If the Post were to go under "there wouldn't be all that much to miss, in terms of quality," says Ms. Garland, who calls the Post "sensational, divisive, and racially inflammatory." Still, Garland says that "journalism needs as many voices as it can have; for that reason I would be very unhappy" if the Post failed.

Hirschfeld has said that he would guarantee some $4 million in unpaid income taxes and Social Security payments. Other claims such as underfunded pensions and potential severance costs are estimated to run as high as $20 million.

Hirschfeld has long been a thorn in the side of New York politicians; he has made many unsuccessful runs for public office. Hirschfeld was once shown on television spitting at a woman reporter.

Hirschfeld's choice for editor in chief is Wilbert Tatum, publisher of The Amsterdam News, the oldest African-American newspaper in America. Critics call Mr. Tatum a racist. But he says that he wants the Post "to reflect the larger population in New York," including many people of color who "do not recognize their culture, their language, or their appearance" in the city's four main dailies. Tatum vows that the new Post will be dedicated to bringing New Yorkers "together."

Still, Hirschfeld and Tatum are winning little togetherness from the Post staff. In Tuesday's edition editors ran unflattering stories of the two men, with such headlines as "WHO IS THIS NUT?" (referring to Hirschfeld) along with a cartoon showing him in a straitjacket.

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