Law of Post Jungle: Murdoch Rips Xana, Imports New Editor

As is often the case when news executives get the boot, it

was the numbers that finally doomed New

York Post editor Xana Antunes. After slashing the price of the daily paper

to a quarter last Labor Day and saturating New York TV with provocative ads

boasting that the newspaper represented the city’s last great bargain, the Post ‘s circulation numbers didn’t rise to

the heights News Corporation executives wanted. And owner Rupert Murdoch wasn’t

happy.

On Monday, April 24, Mr. Murdoch reverted to an old formula,

bagging one of his top execs and replacing him (or, in Ms. Antunes’ case, her )

with a wild Australian to shake things up. Col Allan, the editor in chief

of The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Telegraph , News Corp.’s

papers in Sydney, will start at the Post

on Monday, April 30.

As for Ms. Antunes, News Corp. announced she was resigning

for personal reasons. But everybody knew better than to believe that. “If you

think for an instant that she wanted to leave, you’re nuts,” a Post

source said. “They wanted results that she couldn’t deliver. Rupert’s looking

for more results than he was getting.”

Mr. Allan will come in

with a tabloid bang. On the day he starts, new circulation numbers will be

released by the Audit Bureau of Circulations. The figures,coveringOct.1through

March 30, are expected to report that the Post

sold an average of 492,000 copies on weekdays-a48,000-

paper increase over September’s circulation of 444,000.

Normally, the Post ‘s

rising numbers would be reason to celebrate-perhaps even to give a young editor

in chief a raise. But apparently it’s a real letdown for Mr. Murdoch, who has

been losing money on the Post since

he first purchased it in 1976. (The losses are estimated at anywhere from $10

million to as much as $30 million a year; the numbers are tightly held and have

never been released.) And after putting all that money into advertising-and taking

the financial hit from the price cut-it’s reason enough these days for an owner

to sacrifice a 36-year-old who was once considered the brightest of bright

young things.

“The strategy was to hurt the [ Daily ] News , to dig into the News , and I don’t know whether there

have been enough inroads,” a Post

source said.

It also could be that those new circulation numbers are

deceptive. According to other sources, the Post

bounce happened soon after the price cut and then leveled off. In other words,

all those new readers didn’t stick around. (New Audit figures for the Daily News were not available by press

time.)

Add in that the paper is preparing to open its

quarter-billion-dollar South Bronx color-printing plant next month; that Mr.

Murdoch is waiting to see whether the Federal Communications Commission will

allow him to own the Post as well as

both WNYW-5 and WWOR-9; and that the media are experiencing their worst

advertising slump in ages, and-well, goodbye, Ms. Antunes. We hardly knew ye.

Still, even though Mr. Murdoch’s penchant for quick

managerial maneuvers is well known, the April 23 announcement took most members

of the Post staff by complete

surprise. Many had no idea they were getting a new boss until minutes before

the 5 p.m. newsroom announcement. And, given Mr. Murdoch’s relatively placid

editorial stewardship of the Post ,

they had little reason to suspect he would make such a dramatic move.

Many staffers were fond of Ms. Antunes-and the Post has long been one of the happier,

more collegial news shops in town. But others felt the warning signs had been

coming out of the Post ‘s Sixth Avenue

headquarters for a couple of months.

Key among them was the

back-to-back drop-ins Mr. Murdoch made at two news meetings during the second

week of March. As Off the Record noted at the time, Mr. Murdoch went through

the paper page by page, questioning headlines and news judgment. At times, the

decibel level grew rather loud.

“He ripped the paper piece by piece,” said a staffer.

Those present in the room are reluctant to say just what it

is about the paper that was bothering Mr. Murdoch. But readers can see it:

Since the election and the Florida ballot debacle, the Post seems to have lost a bit of its tabloid oomph. Robbed of

national politics and the antics of a White House resident they could gleefully

hate (though they still have a certain junior Senator from New York to kick

around), they’ve had trouble finding their focus.

Meanwhile, on the metro

front-well, local schools coverage has never been the Post ‘s strong suit, and the paper has spent many a day playing

catch-up to Newsday and the Daily News , both of which have their

Queens-moms formulas down pat. While the News

has been breaking stories about dicey city topics (school lunches thrown

out as food pantries go empty; apparent wrongdoing at Harlem’s Hale House;

excesses at the Police Museum; new art scandals in the Bronx and Brooklyn), and

Newsday has broken a story about

Mayor Giuliani’s pals being crucial to an expensive Kennedy Airport contract,

the Post has wooded with such stories

as “Tip Tops $16G” (about a restaurant maitre d’ who got a big tip from a

customer) or a bizarre rampage by a Ricky Martin look-alike.

Complicating things for Ms. Antunes internally was her tense

relationship with managing editor Stuart Marques. It is an open secret that the

two don’t see eye-to-eye on news. The problem came to a head in January when

metro editor John Mancini left the Post

to head up Newsday ‘s Queens bureau.

Mr. Marques and Ms. Antunes had different feelings about who should replace Mr.

Mancini. “I don’t think [Mr. Marques] respected her news judgment, her

knowledge of the city,” said a Post staffer.

Eventually, Sunday editor Jonathan Auerbach, who was seen as

a protégé of Ms. Antunes, was tapped for the metro post. Mr. Marques, according

to some in the newsroom, was not happy.

A spokesman for the Post

said that News Corp. executives and Post

editors would not be available for comment.

It’s likely, though, that even Mr. Marques was caught by

surprise by Ms. Antunes’ departure. One hour before the paper’s 6 p.m. news

deadline, the staff was asked to gather in front of the assignment desk, where

publisher Ken Chandler and Ms. Antunes-habitually clutching a rosy

lollipop-stood.

After telling them that Ms. Antunes was resigning and that

their new editor was Col Allan, who was still in Sydney, he told the staff much

the same thing that appeared in a statement released by the Post : “Col is one of News Corp.’s most

senior editors and his appointment underscores the company’s commitment to the Post …. We’re also extremely indebted to

Xana, who in her six years at the Post

injected new vitality to the paper, first by revamping the Post ‘s business section and later, as editor, introducing new

lifestyle features while strengthening our core news, sports and gossip

coverage.”

Mr. Chandler opened the floor to questions, and one staffer

asked Ms. Antunes what she would do now. She said she was planning to write a

book.

It was all over in five minutes.

The staff walked away

shaken and sad. “People are pretty glum because, with the exception of Ken

Chandler, she’s been the only civilized editor of the Post ,” said one reporter.

And that was the reaction before they got to search the

Internet for tidbits on Col Allan.

Mr. Allan is a throwback

to the first wave of Aussies brought in by Mr. Murdoch in his early stewardship

of the Post , before News Corp. became

a multimedia conglomerate pushing to make inroads in China and other  global opportunities. Those were the days

when the Murdochian world consisted of Australia, London (Fleet Street in

particular, although Mr. Murdoch’s successful union-busting pushed London’s

cheeky press out to the city limits) and Manhattan-primarily Manhattan’s East

Side, where the jolly Australian men and women could crawl their way from bar

to bar up Second Avenue.

Known in Sydney as “Col Pot,” Mr. Allan, 47, is a 27-year

veteran of the News Corp. media family. He became editor of Sydney’s Daily Telegraph in 1992. After a

successful run at the daily paper, he was made editor in chief of both The Telegraph and the Sunday Telegraph in 1999.

He comes to New York as a Sydney tabloid legend, in a cloud

of stories about long lunches, temper tantrums and an exceedingly good grasp of

how to set a city’s agenda with nothing but a few inches of wire copy and a

well-written headline.

Bryce Corbett, who spent

six years at The Telegraph -three of

them writing its gossip column, Page Thirteen-counts himself among Mr. Allan’s

fans. From Paris, where he works in public relations, Mr. Corbett told Off the

Record, “He has ink in his veins, better news sense than anyone I have ever

known and is not afraid to stir the pot.” He then added in the same breath that

Mr. Allan can be rough on staffers who he doesn’t think are up to snuff. “He

rules with an iron fist. He is incredibly demanding of his staff,” Mr. Corbett

said. “If you get a fact wrong, or are scooped by a rival, you will hear about

it-in an extremely loud and very colorful Australian vernacular. He wasn’t

overly concerned with whether his staff loved him or not.”

And Mr. Allan has a knack for making his presence known in

his newsroom. There is, for example, his proclivity for urinating in a sink

during the daily news meetings.

Stephen Mayne, a former

business editor and chief of staff of The

Telegraph , wrote a profile of Mr. Allan for his start-up Web publication, Crikey , last spring entitled “Pissing in

the Sink.” In a profile of Mr. Allan done later for an Australian national news

program called Sunday , the TV

reporter asked Mr. Allan what he thought the title referred to.

“It meant that I occasionally pissed in the sink,” Mr. Allan

answered bluntly.

“In your office?” the Sunday reporter asked.

“Yep.”

“Is there a reason for that? What, you wouldn’t walk to the

bathroom?” she followed up.

Mr. Allan explained, “Well, there’s a long tradition of this

here, you see …. I mean, a very long and excellent tradition. And let me say it

wasn’t a frequent thing. And it was done as much to entertain the likes of Mr.

Mayne, and I’m glad that it’s succeeded.”

Later, Mr. Mayne retorted on his Web site that the behavior

was a bit more frequent and he, for one, wasn’t terribly entertained.

Mr. Allan, who was at his country home in Australia on April

24, did not return several calls requesting an interview.

But even Mr. Allan’s critics will allow that he possesses

ample talent when it comes to putting out a tabloid newspaper. The editor told

Australian television: “A successful newspaper is one that sells, one that

people enjoy.”

Among his more memorable innovations was taking a few inches

of wire copy about new demographic data from the Australian government and

turning it into The Daily Telegraph ‘s

lead story with the headline, “A Nation of Bastards.”

Mr. Allan’s Telegraph is also known for its tenacity

in campaigns against local Sydney politicians. One poor member of Parliament,

Peter Reith, found himself in the glare of The

Telegraph after expensing the government for $50,000 worth of calls made on

his personal phone card. The story was splashed in the paper as “Dial A

Ding-a-Ling.”

Mr. Allan also sent a

photographer to trail the Sydney mayor, waiting for him to break a law. The

photographer caught him jaywalking and put it in on the front page: “Lord

Muck.”

According to Mr. Mayne’s profile, Mr. Allan comes up with at

least some of these headlines over long, wine-fueled lunches.

“The two times we broke bread at his favourite Sydney

eatery, Lucio’s in Paddington,” Mr. Mayne wrote, “I finished up completely

drunk and staggered back from lunch at 4 p.m. ….”

Mr. Allan has been

stationed in New York before. From 1978 to 1980, he was New York correspondent

for News Corp.’s Australian papers, covering stories such as the Iran hostage

crisis and the 1980 Presidential campaign. According to Mr. Mayne’s profile, he

also got to know Steve Dunleavy, the Post ‘s

longtime columnist. The Crikey

profile, in a story that may be true or, like many tales that concern Mr.

Dunleavy, simply apocryphal, relates how Mr. Dunleavy helped Mr. Allan get out

of a jam with the New York police.

Mr. Allan, according to Mr. Mayne, had been arrested for a

bar brawl, an event that may have been bad for his immigration status. Using

his cop contacts, Mr. Dunleavy is said to have obtained the original police

complaint and later, when he and Mr. Allan met in the bar, helped him burn it.

In recent years, Mr.

Allan has become a good friend of the Murdochs, especially young Lachlan. Mr.

Allan is known to go yachting with Lachlan and his wife, supermodel Sarah

O’Hare. That social relationship raised some speculation inside the Post that Mr. Allan’s arrival was, in

fact, Lachlan Murdoch’s call. If so, it is proof that the 29-year-old mogul son

is starting to assert himself in his role as the “News Corporation Deputy Chief

Operating Officer,” as the Post ‘s

press release on Ms. Antunes’ departure pointedly states.

On the afternoon of

Thursday, April 19, Talk magazine’s

big June issue was all set to go to the printing plant. Estella Warren- model

and semi-star of Sylvester Stallone’s Driven

and Tim Burton’s upcoming Planet of

the Apes- had the cover.

But a funny thing

happened on Estella’s way to the printing press. That night, synergy-smitten Talk

editor Tina Brown was apparently so impressed with the first act of her boss

Harvey Weinstein’s bankrolled show The

Producers that she called her office from the St. James Theater at the

premiere’s intermission and told staffers to bag Ms. Warren’s cover; she was

putting Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane in front. 

“Tina … thought it was a

phenomenal cast, and thought it would make a phenomenal cover,” a Talk spokesman said. “So she went for

it.” Was Ms. Brown’s timing a problem? Not at all, the spokesman said. “The

magazine hadn’t even gone to the factory yet.”

-Ian Blecher