Why news will survive the Koch brothers

It’s a wonderful compliment for Tribune Co.’s newspapers that so many people are worried about what might happen to them under the ownership of Charles and David Koch, the libertarian billionaires said to be considering a bid for the outlets.

In California, unions and legislators have expressed concern about such a sale, the former implying they may withdraw funds invested with Oaktree Capital Management, Tribune’s largest shareholder, if the Kochs get the papers. And the Courage Campaign has bought ads in the Tribune-owned Los Angeles Times asking readers to cancel their subscriptions if the Kochs pocket the paper.

But threatening newspaper publishers with canceled subscriptions is probably not the most effective way to get their attention. The average Sunday print circulation of the Los Angeles Times, for example, has dropped 9 percent in the past year, according to figures from the Alliance for Audited Media. (“Digital memberships” at Tribune properties are reportedly going very well.)

The real damage the Kochs could do, these parties argue, is using the papers as vessels for their libertarian views. And it’s true that the Kochs are prominent contributors to conservative causes and thought factories like the Cato Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and the Reason Foundation, which publishes Reason magazine. It’s also true that they wouldn’t be the first people with a mixture of socially liberal and economically conservative views to publish newspapers.

More to the point, arguing that the muscle of daily newspapers would let the Kochs deal unions and taxes a death blow does not reflect the reality of the modern media. News organizations with a tenth, or even a hundredth, of a city daily’s personnel can produce reporting with just as much impact thanks to the flattened distribution system of the Internet. One example: InsideClimate News, which has seven full-timers and just won a Pulitzer.

Despite the diminution of advertising revenue, news is still a competitive business. Were the Kochs to drive out every last liberal from the Los Angeles Times, they’d likely face competition from cheesed-off journalists and readers who could start their own news organizations. Not to mention the threat of existing newsrooms covering California, from the OC Register to the Center for Investigative Reporting’s California Watch project, to public radio station KPCC’s newsgathering operation, to broadcast television.

The Chicago Tribune, likewise, faces robust competition from a number of outlets. But what would happen if the Trib-owned newspapers in smaller cities like Hartford, Baltimore or Orlando were to alienate their readership?

Maybe it’s instructive to look at the ballooning options for New Orleans news consumers. After that city’s Times-Picayune cut print frequency to howls from community members, Baton Rouge newspaper The Advocate began to try to woo disaffected customers with a New Orleans bureau, a daily print paper and a growing number of former Times-Picayune journalists.

Likewise, the nonprofit news site The Lens has provided investigative reporting to both the Advocate and the Times-Picayune, and to readers on its own snazzy site. Gambit Weekly and the Nola Defender cover arts, politics, media and more. And there are more outlets, all of whom would love to land a killer local scoop.

The days of a daily newspaper being the last word in local news are long gone. If the Kochs destroy the Times, news will rise again in Los Angeles.

Related: “Who’s afraid of the Koch brothers?” (Jack Shafer, Reuters) | “If the Koch Brothers Want to Pay Too Much for Newspapers, Let Them” (Hamilton Nolan, Gawker)

Previously: More groups organize against the Koch brothers buying Tribune’s newspapers | Chicagoans protest Koch brothers buying Tribune’s newspapersLos Angeles Times journalists chafe at possible Koch ownership | Pearlstein: Tribune journalists should ‘lob a stink bomb’ into potential Koch bid

I compiled this post in part from notes I made for an interview Thursday with KPCC.

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  • JTFloore

    the “left wing propaganda” is rarely as left wing or propaganda as some would have us believe.

  • http://twitter.com/Quest4Birds Matthew Hensley

    I’ve been reading a lot of the coverage of these possible newspaper sales to
    the Koch brothers, and I’m concerned about the tone so many people, including
    journalists, are taking.

    Here’s my issue: While the Koch brothers have well-known political views and a
    well-documented history of tweaking media organizations for their
    representation of the Kochs, the brothers and Koch Industries have never owned
    a newspaper. There’s no proof that they’d limit the depth of coverage, change
    the opinion page’s tilt or otherwise make sweeping changes at any paper they
    may buy.

    I think we need to slow down on the speculation until we know more about their
    intentions. If the Kochs want to buy papers to act solely as a platform for
    their political views, it would be unfortunate and would likely devastate the
    value of those properties. But it may be they are following in the footsteps of
    Warren Buffet, another billionaire investor, who sees newspapers as cheap buys
    with significant profit potential.

  • http://www.facebook.com/robert.knilands Robert Knilands

    Full agreement. I have long been annoyed with both sides when they pursue that angle. I long for an election where the radical elements on both sides are pulverized into extinction.

  • Brian Bissonnette

    Its about time we get some conservatives owning some media outlets. Maybe we will start to get some unbiased reporting. The control of the media by left wing nuts may finally be challenged and the truth may finally reach the people in this country instead of the left wing propaganda we have to see everyday.

  • sargeh

    Well, Andrew, your political persuasion has certainly been confirmed. By the way why have you NOT been reporting on the non-coverage of such issues as the Benghazi question, the doctor facing multiple murder charges in Philly? Don’t they fit in with your agenda?

  • JTFloore

    exactly why do some insist on reducing every single dispute to liberal v conservative thought? it’s stupid. neither side has a corner on the good or the bad, and both sides should finally recognize it.

  • thx2600

    This is truly too much.

    “The real damage the Kochs could do, these parties argue, is using the papers as vessels for their libertarian views.”

    What this means is, it’s OK for media in general to blast people every day with left-leaning liberal views, but if someone were to do the same with libertarian views, well, that’s just something that we won’t stand for. And let’s not EVEN talk about a Republican viewpoint.

    The point is, you cannot tolerate viewpoints different from your own very narrow, skewed opinion of how the world should be. Liberal does not equate to open-mindedness.

    “The days of a daily newspaper being the last word in local news are long
    gone.”

    Well, thank the Lord for that.