LONDON — Britain's best-selling Sunday tabloid the News of the World signed off with a simple front page message – "THANK YOU & GOODBYE" – leaving the media establishment here reeling from the expanding phone-hacking scandal that brought down the muckraking newspaper after 168 years.
Journalists crafted the newspaper's own obituary before sending the tabloid's final edition to the printing presses Saturday night, apologizing for letting its readers down but stopping short of acknowledging recent allegations that staff paid police for information.
"We praised high standards, we demanded high standards but, as we are now only too painfully aware, for a period of a few years up to 2006 some who worked for us, or in our name, fell shamefully short of those standards," read a message posted on the tabloid's website. "Quite simply, we lost our way. Phones were hacked, and for that this newspaper is truly sorry."
Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corp. media empire owns the paper, will arrive in London on Sunday on a scheduled visit, a person familiar with his itinerary told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Buying the News of the World in 1969 gave the Australian-born Murdoch his first foothold in Britain's media. He went on to snap up several other titles, gaining almost unparalleled influence in British politics through the far-reaching power of his papers' headlines.
Now he is facing a maelstrom of criticism and outrage over the sequence of events set off by allegations the paper's journalists paid police for information and hacked into the voicemails of young murder victims and the grieving families of dead soldiers.
The recent revelations culminated in the decision to close the paper and put 200 journalists out of work – but the move failed to stem broader questions about corruption at the newspaper and press regulation in the U.K.
The sordid affair has played out at breakneck pace in the media and prompted soul-searching at the highest levels of officialdom. Prime Minister David Cameron has called for a new press regulation system and pledged a public inquiry into what went wrong; the head of Murdoch's U.K. newspaper operations has alluded that more revelations are yet to come.
As the News of the World's final issue went to press, Assistant Police Commissioner John Yates expressed his "extreme regret" that he did not act to reopen police inquiries into phone hacking two years ago. In an interview with the Sunday Telegraph, he said "it's clear I could have done more."
But Murdoch has opted to remain largely silent amid the fallout, issuing one official statement describing the allegations as "deplorable and unacceptable."
He spoke briefly to reporters in Sun Valley, Idaho, on Saturday, where he is attending a media conference, to back the leadership of his U.K. news operations.
The final edition of the tabloid hits newsstands on Sunday, and the newspaper's front and back pages are covered with a collage of images of past exclusives and scoops.
The front page bears an epitaph, "the world's greatest newspaper 1843 - 2011" and a smaller headline with the words: "After 168 years, we finally say a sad but very proud farewell to our 7.5m loyal readers."
Throughout the day, journalists at the tabloid expressed their sadness and pride in working for an iconic news brand.
Video of the newsroom showed desk-bound journalists tapping away at keyboards beneath television screens broadcasting images and pictures of their task, and plight.
Small clues gave the tone of the London newsroom away – from a commemorative T-shirt bearing a "Goodbye, cruel News of the World, I'm leaving you today" worn by one staffer.
The paper's editor, Colin Myler, offered words of encouragement and sympathy to his staff on a "very difficult day."
"It's not where we want to be and it's not where we deserve to be," he said in a memo to staff seen by Britain's Press Association. "But I know we will produce a paper to be proud of."
Helen Moss, a news and features editor who offered refreshments to journalists camped outside the tabloid's headquarters, described an "extremely emotional" newsroom.
Much of the emotion continued to focus on News International – a subsidiary of Murdoch's News Corp. – which took the decision to jettison the paper on Thursday after the new allegations sparked a fierce backlash and the flight of advertisers.
When asked whose decision it was to close the paper Murdoch said, "It was a collective decision."
The scandal exploded this week after it was reported that the News of the World had hacked the mobile phone of 13-year-old murder victim Milly Dowler in 2002 while her family and police were desperately searching for her. News of the World operatives reportedly deleted some messages from the phone's voicemail, giving the girl's parents false hope that she was still alive.
That ignited public outrage far beyond any previous reaction to press intrusion into the lives of politicians and celebrities, which the paper has acknowledged and for which it has paid compensation to some prominent victims, including actress Sienna Miller.
Revelations that journalists paid police for information added fuel to the fire, prompting calls for a boycott and causing dozens of companies to pull their advertising from the paper amid fears they would be tainted by association.
James Murdoch – tipped by many as a likely successor to his father – then announced Thursday that this Sunday's edition of the tabloid would be its last and all revenue from it will go to "good causes."
The closure was seen by some as a desperate attempt by the media conglomerate to stem negative fallout and thus save its 12 billion-pound ($19 billion) deal to take over satellite broadcaster British Sky Broadcasting.
But the British government has signaled that deal will be delayed because of the crisis and the scandal has continued to unfold with the announcement of three arrests linked to the matter on Friday.
Andy Coulson – a former News of the World editor and ex-communications chief to Prime Minister David Cameron – was arrested Friday, as was Clive Goodman, an ex-News of the World royal reporter, and an unidentified 63-year-old man. All three have since been released on bail.
The developments have turned up the heat on Britain's media industry amid concerns a police investigation won't stop with the News of the World.
It has also cast new scrutiny on the cozy relationship between British politicians and the powerful Murdoch empire, putting the media baron's company on the defensive.
Many journalists and media watchers have expressed astonishment that Rebekah Brooks, who was editor of News of the World when some of the hacking allegedly occurred, was keeping her job at head of News Corp.'s U.K. newspaper operations while the paper's 200 employees were laid off.
When asked Saturday if Brooks continues to have his support, Rupert Murdoch replied simply: "Total."
"We already apologized," he said. "We've been let down by people ... the paper let down its readers."
Brooks told lawmakers she had "no knowledge whatsoever" of the Milly Dowler hacking or any other case while she was editor, according to a letter published by Britain's home affairs select committee on Saturday.
"I also want to reassure you that the practice of phone hacking is not continuing at the News of the World," she said in response to the committee's request for new evidence. "For the avoidance of doubt, I should add that we have no reason to believe that any phone hacking occurred at any other of our titles."
While she has been portrayed as a villain in the unfolding story, Brooks – with strong connections to British politics and decades of experience behind her – has insisted she is the right person to lead News International through the crisis.
Upping the ante, the Church of England threatened to pull nearly 4 million pounds of investments from News Corp. if it "does not hold senior executives to account...for the gross failures of management at the News of the World."
The church's ethical investment advisory group said Saturday it wrote to News Corp. saying closing News of the World was not a "sufficient response" to the "utterly reprehensible and unethical" practices uncovered at the tabloid.
As he led the News of the World's staff out of the building to cheers and applause, Myler, the editor, paid tribute to his team's professionalism and thanked the tabloid's readers.
"In the best tradition" of Britain's newspapers, he told the gathered press scrum, "we are going to the pub."
Julie Jacobson contributed to this report from Sun Valley, Idaho.
Cassandra Vinograd can be reached at http://twitter.com/CassVinograd