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FUTURE LOOKS BRIGHTER FOR TROUBLED DAILY NEWS

The bombastic British tycoon who rescued the Daily News from a messy strike a year ago is dead. The newspaper, in bankruptcy court, is still living on the edge.

Yet the mood among the newpaper's managers, unions and creditors is upbeat these days - a sharp change from the winter of 1990-91 when a five-month strike nearly killed the tabloid that was once the nation's largest-selling newspaper.They hope a new owner and a reorganization plan will put the Daily News in the clear by June.

"The paper has an enormously bright future," said editor and publisher James Willse. "It's an enormously attractive franchise filled with potential. I don't think anybody felt quite that good about it a year ago."

Even employees have taken to wearing buttons that say: "Too Tough to Die."

Others are more circumspect.

"The News has lived, but the price of living is that the paper is significantly weaker than it was," said James Hoge, the paper's publisher under the Tribune Co.

Since the Tribune Co. paid publishing magnate Robert Maxwell $60 million to take over the newpaper a year ago, circulation has risen from 300,000 to 800,000. But it remains far short of the 1.12 million sold each day before the strike.

The advertising department has had to rebuild and the newspaper has permanently lost some of its top writers to competitors such as the New York Post and New York Newsday.

A month after Maxwell's body was found Nov. 5 in waters off the Canary Islands and his media empire began collapsing with debts in the billions and allegations of financial misdeeds, the News filed for protection from its creditors.

This year began with one goal: finding a buyer. At least one potential investor thinks the News has rebounded remarkably from the strike.

"It's like Lazarus come back from the grave, to go from 300,000 circulation to 800,000," he said.