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June 7, 2013, 9:51 a.m.
Los Angeles Times

The newsonomics of the Kochs: The impact on the L.A. news landscape

If the Koch brothers do take over the Los Angeles Times, the impacts will reverberate across southern California. Here’s how it might work out.

Los Angeles Times

For more background on a potential Koch purchase of Tribune Company newspapers, see Part 1 of this piece.

Let’s say that Charles and David Koch are successful in their now-announced quest (“The newsonomics of the Kochs rising — and uprising”) to take ownership of the L.A. Times and other Tribune papers. What would a Koch-owned Times look like? How would the competition respond? What difference would it make on the U.S. press landscape?

Expect that the Kochs would borrow a couple of pages from Rupert Murdoch’s playbook.

The Murdoch style: Promise the world to the sellers, in terms of editorial standards and independence. Then, post-closing, install your own people at the top of the newsroom — and the opinion pages as necessary, though The Wall Street Journal’s came tailor-made for Rupert. As long as those new top editors have respectable resumes, their abilities to change, in broad and subtle fashion, coverage priorities will go largely uncontested.

That’s the experience of The Wall Street Journal. Rupert Murdoch’s 2007 acquisition of the Journal unleashed many fears and theories as to what he would do with it. Most of them were wrong. He invested in the newsroom and in the product, and if the Kochs are smart, expect to hear promises of such funding. (One fact not to be overlooked in the sales process: the L.A. Times and all the Tribune papers require deep pockets both for re-investment and just to stay the course as advertising slips further south. Left, right, or center, readers and staff better hope owners both have the resources and are willing to spend them over the next several years.)

Yet the Journal is a different beast than what it was a decade ago. Look at the Journal and the Times in any given week, and you can see the differences — some subtle, some less so — in what gets covered, how it gets covered and how it gets played and headlined.

The Journal bears little relation to Fox News, despite the fears of Foxification. Foxification, though, is a real phenomenon, and we can see its print effects at UT San Diego, formerly known as the San Diego Union-Tribune. That’s the nightmare scenario for the L.A. Times and other newspapers under the Kochs: the naked use of a paper as a political and business weapon.

As climate change deniers, the Kochs’ editorial control may have far wider consequences. Editorials pooh-poohing climate change science would be one thing; shifts in global warming coverage and tone there would be expected. But it’s hard to imagine the Kochs reading their own paper’s coverage without wincing and, as people used to running their businesses in ways that make sense to them, making changes.

The global warming question isn’t an abstract one. If San Diego offers one cautionary lesson about Koch ownership, look Down Under to another. There the global warming debate has been one in which the press itself is a key player. The controversy: the denier slant brought to climate change coverage in the major press. News Corp.’s News Limited, which owns 70 percent of the Australian press, has been a particular cause of that controversy, as illustrated on this well done Australian “Watching the Deniers” site.

Let’s say it’s not the Kochs, but the Broad-Burkle-Beutner team. With their Democratic leanings and funding, their ownership would further roil the credibility waters, even if they bring Republicans into the ownership group and operate the paper in an above-board fashion. Even The Huffington Post, sharing much of B-B-B’s political leanings, points out how problematic such ownership could be, given the coverage devoted to those principals’ many business and political activities.

Credibility is the surest loser in a Koch win — even if the Kochs should invest in the product and operate it within generally accepted news principles of fairness. Why? The suspicion of unfairness, based on their political history. That may fair or unfair, but it’s a reality, and one that is spreading to the press as a whole.

A survey of Pew Research studies on newspaper credibility shows a downward slope parallel to newspaper’s financial movement. As the press has grown weakened financially, and weakened itself further through staff and staff experience cuts, the public has lowered its own confidence in the press. As an example. Take these three measures: 1) “stories are often inaccurate”; 2) “tend to favor one side”; 3) “often influenced by powerful people and organizations.” On each of these, the percentage of Americans who believed they are true has increased at least 24 percentage points since 1985.

Credibility is in free fall; perceived greater politicization of the press will only make it worse.

Despite that declining credibility, reader and staff loss and perhaps a loss in civic clout, the interest of powerful people in the L.A. Times offers a quite timely lesson.

Critics can say what they want about the diminishment about the L.A. Times. Its news presence and ability to set agendas, through its reporting and opinion pages, is certainly reduced, but it’s still got the only megaphone of its kind in town. As Gabriel Kahn, a University of Southern California journalism professor and WSJ alum pointed out to me this week, even newsletters that aggregate local news — from such sources as the L.A. Business Journal and KPCC’s Maven’s Morning Coffee, rely heavily on the Times for their citations. Consider that an indication that the next generation of rip ‘n read — dailies’ long-standing complain against local radio news stations — uses the same raw resource as the first one, the daily newspaper’s vast newsroom.

What lesson we’re seeing reinforced: No matter how much anyone may pre-bury the legacy daily, some people understand the huge and remaining value of media today. So maybe a different question needs to be asked. Not the almost trite one — “When will dailies disappear?” — but a new one: “Who will own and steer these old titles into the heart of the 21st Century?”

In L.A., there’s a diversity of voices, but none comes close to the Times’ impact. What would indeed happen if the Koch brothers take title to the Times? Certainly, we’d see a boycott organized, and that would have some (probably minor) impact on the Times circulation, which, of course, has declined with that of the rest of its peers.

We could see attempts to replace the Times as a habit in readers’ lives, a reach that the Times says is still in the millions. Among the traditional press, MediaNews properties, now managed by Digital First Media, really only compete on the margins, both geographically and in terms of coverage; major owner Alden Global Capital is unlikely to double-down on its investment to get into a newspaper war. If you were the Kochs and wanted to solidify your print presence, in fact, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to buy out the Los Angeles Newspaper Group‘s nine dailies.

To the south, the re-born Orange County Register has its hands full re-building its home market after the destructive impacts of cost-cutting and bankruptcy. If Aaron Kushner doesn’t win the L.A. Times in the auction, he’s unlikely to move into the L.A. market, as The Advocate in Baton Rouge is now doing in its battle with the slim-sized Times-Picayune in New Orleans.

Then there’s KPCC, which is still staffing up its news resources (“The newsonomics of the death and life of California news”). Those will total 100 people by year’s end, pushing more strongly into arts and entertainment, health care, and the environment, fueled by local funding that has already picked up. While a Koch ownership will provide adrenaline to KPCC’s foundation- and individual-giving campaigns and to its news growth, KPCC itself knows it’s no L.A. Times — in reach, in voice, in coverage, or in impact. With the right kind of additional partnerships, it could position itself, though, as the Pepsi to the Times’ Koch.

Add it up. When the boycotts spend their themselves, there won’t be any big, single alternative to the Times for civic-minded readers.

How about the journalists, in L.A. — or around the country?

For the staff of the Times, don’t expect an aux-barricades-mes-freres (-et-soeurs) moment. Yes, dozens of newsroom staffers raised their hands when columnist Steve Lopez asked them if they would quit the paper should the Kochs buy it? With a dearth of full-time journalism jobs in L.A. and elsewhere, a hand raise is far easier than a signature on a letter of resignation. Even in Europe — including France — where labor solidarity among journalists is more the norm than in the U.S., staff revolts have have largely failed to stop rich conservatives from taking over news properties. Sensing their real choices, journalists have stayed in place, aiming to ride out whatever new pains dumb, or smart, new ownership may bring.

Photo of May 29, 2013 protest by the “Save Our News” coalition in Los Angeles by AP/Damian Dovarganes.

POSTED     June 7, 2013, 9:51 a.m.
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