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.

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at TBD.com and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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