By James Mackenzie
ROME (Reuters) - L'Unita, the left-wing daily founded by Antonio Gramsci, one of the fathers of Italian communism, will suspend publication from Friday after its shareholders failed to reach agreement on future strategy, the newspaper said.
"They have killed L'Unita," the paper headlined its front page on Wednesday. Apart from three pages devoted to the closure and a one-page advertisement for its e-bookstore, the remainder of the 20-page edition was left blank.
L'Unita, founded by Gramsci in 1924 as the official organ of the Italian Communist Party, survived the fascist era as an underground newspaper but it has struggled since the collapse of the party in the 1990s, closing briefly in 2000 before reopening with new private shareholders.
Like the rest of the media sector, it has also been hit by the wider transformation of the industry through the Internet as well as by the economic crisis in Italy, building up millions of euros in debt while sales dropped steadily to just over 20,000 copies a day.
With administrators demanding 1.6 million euros to guarantee the paper could continue operating until September, a shareholders' meeting on Tuesday saw three proposals rejected. Underlining the scale of the crisis, they included one from Daniela Santanche, a right-wing member of parliament and one of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's closest associates.
Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's centre-left Democratic Party (PD), which retains a small stake in the newspaper, promised its support, but said it was not responsible for the paper's problems.
"The responsibility is down to those who have been managing it until now," party treasurer Francesco Bonifazi said, but added that it would work to keep the paper open. "The PD is 100 percent committed to finding a solution. We will save L'Unita."
Beyond the newspaper's financial problems, the crisis at L'Unita reflects the sense of disorientation in parts of the Italian left following the ascent of Renzi, a modernizer who rose to power on a promise to demolish the old party structures.
"L'Unita is the newspaper, which more than any other, has told the story and identified with workers and their work," Susanna Camusso, head of the CGIL, Italy's biggest union, said in a statement, calling on the PD to intervene.
However the newspaper's own journalists, who have worked unpaid for the past three months, accused Italy's main party of the left of abandoning them despite hopes it would intervene.
"The workers have been left alone to defend an historic publication," its editorial committee said.
(Editing by Janet Lawrence)