Shocking developments in the gossip world! Tab publisher absconds with rival in $105 million blowout, cornering supermarket checkout aisle!

Or so, it seems, might the headlines read in next week's National Enquirer. Or in the Star. Or the Globe. Or maybe all three. Thanks to the latest deal in the ever-consolidating media industry, all three of America's best loved--or most reviled, depending--weekly tabloids will now be published by the same company.

American Media, a New York-based outfit partly owned by former deputy treasury secretary Roger C. Altman, snapped up Globe Communications Corp. yesterday. This gives American Media a trifecta on breakthrough diet tips, celebrity love-nest exposes and JonBenet Ramsey murder investigation play-by-play. American Media already owned the National Enquirer and the Star (and the much smaller Weekly World News). It will now add the Globe (as well as that lesser-known tab, the National Examiner) to its shopping cart.

In tabloid terms, this is a bit like the Hatfields cozying up to the McCoys.

The Enquirer and the Globe--headquartered only seven miles apart near Boca Raton, Fla.--have been bitter rivals, after all. When the Globe lured former football star Frank Gifford into a hotel liaison with an ex-flight attendant--which was videotaped by Globe cameras--Enquirer editor Steve Coz denounced the "scandal," calling the rival paper "downright cruel."

Later, when Gifford's paramour, Suzen Johnson, told the Enquirer she'd been paid $250,000 to set up Gifford, the Globe went to court in an unsuccessful attempt to block the Enquirer story. The two papers have sometimes traded journalists; they'll now be housed under the same roof in the new capital of tabloid journalism, Boca Raton.

The joining of the papers sets up its own tabloid-worthy tale of politics and media. If Altman is now the king of all tabloid media, that puts a fierce Clinton loyalist--and sometime fund-raiser for Hillary Rodham Clinton--in charge of publications that have feasted off various Clinton peccadilloes.

It was the Star, for example, that broke the Dick Morris toe-sucking scandal. Both the Star and the Enquirer were unstinting in their coverage of the more extreme aspects of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. (The Globe was relatively restrained.)

Lately, the papers seemed to have moved on to President Clinton's would-be successor, Vice President Gore. The headline from this week's Enquirer: "Al Gore's Diet Is Making Him Stupid!"

David Pecker, chief executive and chairman of American Media, said yesterday that Altman will have no direct role in running the papers. "Roger has not been involved in anything having to do with editorial at all," Pecker said. "The first time I heard from him in three months was when I got a call congratulating me on the deal."

Altman's Clintonian connections could be an issue if the Justice Department decides to investigate the deal under antitrust law. The Enquirer has long sought to buy the Globe's parent company, Globe Communications, but the Globe's controlling shareholder, Montreal businessman Michael Rosenbloom, reportedly resisted out of concern that such a deal would be blocked by antitrust authorities.

Altman and Rosenbloom were unavailable for comment yesterday. The papers' top editors referred calls to American Media.

Despite its sensational headlines and lurid stories (this week's Globe: "The skeletons in the closet of the new Mrs. America come tumbling out!"), the grim reality facing the tabs is that the market they pioneered is slowing being eaten away by other, allegedly more "respectable" media outlets.

The Enquirer (circulation: 2.2 million), the Star (1.8 million) and the Globe (800,000) have lost about a third of their weekly circulation in the past five years. Analysts attribute that to intensified celebrity news-and-gossip mongering by the likes of People magazine, Entertainment Tonight, the E! Entertainment cable channel and other tab-like TV shows.

To counter this, Pecker says he intends to redesign the Globe and create clear editorial differences among the three leading tabloids. In the future, he said, the Enquirer might cover "the investigative side" of a Hollywood scandal while the Star would cover the same scandal's impact on the celebrities involved. In turn, the Globe would cover "the spice and . . . unvarnished gossip of the story. The Globe will be the true tabloid," he said.

In recent years, the Enquirer has achieved a kind of rogue respectability, profiled by ABC's "Nightline" and quoted by the New York Times in the O.J. Simpson case. An Enquirer offer of a $100,000 reward lured a witness whose information led to the conviction of Mikail Markhasev in the murder of Bill Cosby's son, Ennis. It has often offered accurate accounts of celebrity misbehavior that have eluded celebrity-driven magazines like Vanity Fair or GQ.

Indeed, these days it's often hard to know which are the scurrilous and which are the respectable media. "The mainstream," Pecker says, "is more like the tabloids, and the tabloids are becoming more like the mainstream every day."

Staff writer Howard Kurtz contributed to this report.