NEW YORK, FEB. 19 -- At 2 p.m. today, as dozens of reporters and editors sipped champagne in a bittersweet farewell toast to the New York Post, word reached the newsroom that owner Rupert Murdoch had stopped the negotiating clock for 15 minutes.
"Fifteen Minutes to Live -- I can see the headline now!" someone shouted.
There were plenty of graveyard jokes, brave smiles and lingering hugs here as 1,200 employees nervously waited for the final word on whether Murdoch would carry out his threat to shut down the 187-year-old tabloid, known for its blaring headlines and purple prose.
Instead, the marathon negotiations between Murdoch and the paper's unions turned into the kind of cliffhanger the Post loves to cover. Talks recessed this afternoon and then resumed tonight with no indication whether the two sides were close to an agreement.
The mood was decidedly grim before the 2 p.m. deadline set by Murdoch, who promised to padlock the South Street building if the paper's unions did not agree to $24 million in concessions over three years. Without the concessions, Murdoch announced 12 days ago, he would abandon his plan to sell the paper for $37.6 million to New York real estate developer Peter S. Kalikow.
The two sides had agreed on savings of $21 million after days of tense negotiations, but they reached an impasse over the remaining $3 million and other details.
When Murdoch twice stopped the negotiating clock after vowing not to do so, however, employees in the newsroom began to hope the paper might be saved.
Few among the small, tightly knit staff lost their sense of humor during the nerve-wracking wait for news. Reporter Linda Stevens called the office of Cardinal John O'Connor and asked whether he could visit with Post employees. "I think the least Johnny O can do is come down and bless us before we go out of business," she told his office.
Others worried aloud about mortgage payments. Feature writer Elizabeth Sutherland, who started as a Post copy girl 13 years ago, faced a triple whammy: Her father is a driver for the paper, and her husband, Donald, works on the city desk.
If her husband worked somewhere else, Sutherland said, "I'd have the luxury of collecting unemployment. Now we're both going to be on the street, and we're going to have to start scrambling with the rest of the rats."
As for her job prospects, Sutherland said, "The problem is, where do you go? This market is shrinking. This field is shrinking. They're having their own cutbacks over at the Daily News."
When staffers drifted into work this morning, they were greeted by a computer message from night editor Mark Kalech: "Good morning -- talks resume at 10 a.m. God help us all."
Some Post employees went through the motions of preparing a Saturday paper without knowing whether it would be published. (It was.) Others called it a charade and refused to cover breaking stories in Brooklyn and Queens.
When the final edition came up at 12:30 -- "Judge Springs Slumlord," it said -- reporters were grabbing copies and collecting autographs from colleagues. Louie Liotta, a photographer for more than 40 years, snapped pictures around the newsroom. Two employees puffed on a marijuana joint. Top editors played a game of nerf ball. Several compared it to the last day of high school.
But tensions rose as the deadline neared and most of the staff gathered around a television set, watching Cable News Network for some sign of a last-minute reprieve.
There was considerable anger at Murdoch, the Australian-born press baron who was a hero to many Post employees just a few weeks ago.
The paper's unions strongly supported Murdoch's bid for a waiver to allow him to hold onto the Post, despite Federal Communications Commission rules barring one company from owning a newspaper and television station in the same city. Murdoch also owns WNYW-TV (Channel 5), the flagship of his Fox television network.
Forced by a congressional amendment by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) to choose between a television station that earned $90 million last year and a tabloid that lost $17 million, Murdoch chose to unload the Post. But when he refused to entertain several offers and coupled his proposed sale to Kalikow with an ultimatum to the unions, many felt betrayed.
"We realized the extent to which we were used," Stevens said. "We really went to the mat for that guy. For a while, people were considering Rupert Murdoch a slaughtered lamb. He was getting very good press."
Some union officials suggested that Kalikow was primarily interested in obtaining the Post's waterfront property in lower Manhattan, worth an estimated $30 million.
Unions representing editorial employees, pressmen, paper handlers and mailers had agreed to a $33 million package -- including a company buyout of 116 jobs and elimination of some overtime payments -- but insisted on a wage increase. Murdoch, who demanded a 12 percent pay cut, rejected the proposal. In a further complication, the independent drivers' union has been negotiating separately with the Post.
Shutting down the Post would cost Murdoch about $35 million in severance pay and other costs, although he could largely offset this by selling the building and equipment.
Newspaper analysts say there is virtually no chance for the Post to turn a profit. Its circulation, once nearly 1 million, has dropped to about 500,000, and advertising has plummeted since the Kennedy amendment became law.
The negotiations had an air of unreality since Murdoch was simultaneously asking a federal court in Washington to let him keep the Post. Murdoch, who bought the Post in 1976 from liberal publisher Dorothy Schiff, also refused to negotiate with such bidders as Leonard Stern, owner of the Village Voice, and Wilbert Tatum, publisher of the Amsterdam News.
Late today, one reporter typed into the paper's computer system: "Terror gripped 1,200 sobbing, angry workers in lower Manhattan yesterday as international press baron Rupert Murdoch folded the 187-year-old New York Post." The rest of the city is waiting to see whether that obituary is premature.