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The naked city

Pat Purcell has helped keep Boston a two-newspaper town, and for that I have always appreciated him. But as the economics of newspapers get more difficult and he searches for new partners or a buyer, you can forget the fantasy that his old mentor, Rupert Murdoch, will somehow be there for him if push comes to shove.

Purcell ran the Boston Herald for Murdoch for a decade and then bought it for a rock-bottom price in 1994 when the New York media mogul was forced to sell because of federal rules prohibiting him from owning both a paper and a television station in a single market. Murdoch has been getting a lot of press in Boston, particularly in the Herald, now that he has assumed control of Los Angeles Dodgers owner Frank McCourt's 24 acres in South Boston.

But what hasn't been reported is Murdoch's moves on the publishing front in Boston. Murdoch wants to print his cheeky New York Post in Boston, and he has turned to The Boston Globe, not the Boston Herald, to do it probably because of the Globe's superior color capabilities. A Globe spokesman confirms the Globe is "in negotiations" with Murdoch's company to print the Post on the Globe's Morrissey Boulevard presses and deliver it on Globe trucks. A Post spokeswoman says a deal is "under consideration." Murdoch wants to print 30,000 to 40,000 copies at the Globe.

I love the New York Post; it is one of my great guilty pleasures. But having a smarter, livelier tabloid more readily available in Boston even a New York tab will do Purcell no good. For the Globe printing the Post represents new revenue; hurting the Herald is a bonus.

Information is scarce on Purcell's search for a buyer or partners to replace the private equity firms that are cashing out. A consultant for one bidder said Purcell recently rejected a bid estimated at $160 million to $170 million from a buyout firm to purchase the entire Herald Media Inc., which includes the Boston Herald and about 100 daily and weekly suburban newspapers. (That excludes the Herald's real estate, which is owned separately by the Purcell family.) Purcell countered at $205 million, the consultant said.

Two other news executives briefed on the negotiations say Purcell has recently shown a willingness to separate the suburban papers, which are considered healthy, from the Herald, which is not.

The potential buyers are seen as mostly buyout firms rather than other newspaper chains. Heritage Partners, which in December expressed an interest in Herald Media, is now seen more as a seller of its two local newspapers, the Patriot Ledger of Quincy and The Enterprise of Brockton, than a buyer, according to several executives.

Heritage declined to comment.

One name that pops up frequently as a possible buyer is Canadian publisher David Black. Based in Victoria, British Columbia, Black Press has about 100 publications, mainly small newspapers, in Canada, and it rescued the Honolulu Star Bulletin from death about five years ago. According to one news executive, Black's financial backer, Onex Corp., Canada's biggest buyout firm, visited the Herald, but wasn't interested. Where that leaves Black is unclear. He didn't return my calls or e-mails.

Said Purcell: "We have a lot of balls in the air . . . We're not commenting until we have something to report."

Neighborhood news: The Middlesex Retirement System, which has had more than its share of investment problems, has decided for the first time to invest a sliver of its money with the state pension fund, about $10 million in real estate assets. Bad luck, or whatever, continues to dog Middlesex, however. The Boston Business Journal reports Middlesex was among the investors in Axxon Capital, a venture fund started in 1999 by well-known Boston stockbroker Sheryl Marshall and designed to target women-owned start-ups. Middlesex says it has written off its entire $1.2 million investment.

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