Monday, April 29, 2013
Wolff: Kochs eye old media to create new voice
Story originally appeared on USA Today.
The ultrarich and ultraconservative Koch brothers might like to build a conservative media empire from the old Tribune Co. But is that what the audience wants?
The Koch brothers, the unimaginably rich and combatively conservative oil heirs, are telling people that they might like to buy the newspapers owned by the recently bankrupt Tribune Co. — Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant and The Baltimore Sun, among them.
Their idea, to the consternation of many liberals, is to turn these papers into a national network of conservative voices, or what The New York Times calls "a broader platform for the Kochs' laissez-faire ideas."
Of course, this does not mean that they will buy the papers. In fact, the thing that many super-rich men like even more than the idea of owning newspapers is having people thinking they could own them if they wanted to.
COLUMN: Hey, 'New York Post' editor, what were you thinking?
Still, they might. The Kochs are rich enough to buy what most other sane men would not.
Of course, there are many simpler and cheaper ways to get attention for your view than buying troubled newspapers. You can fund think tanks and foundations. You can start lobbying groups. You can contribute virtually unlimited amounts of money to the candidate of your choice. You can finance advertising campaigns. All of which the determined Koch brothers have done.
But that has not, apparently, been enough.
Because, in a sense, politics is one thing and media is another.
As much as wanting lower taxes and less government interference, the Koch brothers want less liberal media — or more conservative media.
They may believe, with some justification, that media, and by that they mean mostly liberal media, is the real government — the cultural advance guard that is changing this country. As powerful as the Koch brothers are, they likely feel they are not as powerful as, say, The New York Times, or George Clooney, or Jon Stewart.
It might seem when you are rich enough to buy anything you want that one thing still out of reach is media — or at least good media. In fact, the more money you have, the worse, it might seem, you're treated by the media. There are people who have gotten worse press than the Koch brothers, but not too many. Perhaps Michael Bloomberg is an example to them — a rich man whose favorable press comes at least in part because he can give journalists jobs.
Still, it seems also clear that the Kochs' passions are as important as their egos. They not only believe in the usual conservative verities, but they appear to be in something of a personal war with President Obama.
The Tribune newspapers might seem like a formidable weapon for them. Curiously, most of the papers they are proposing to buy are in cities that voted overwhelmingly for the president — cities that have not had a reliably conservative base in a generation or two. (The Tribune Co. also owns Hoy, the second-largest Spanish-language paper in the U.S.)
Why you would go into a business trying to sell things that your customers don't seem to want is hard to understand.
What's more, they would be buying enterprises staffed by several thousand unionized people who don't share their views. True, most of these people are not in the views business and are primarily concerned with reporting local news. (Actually, many are concerned with selling advertising and trucking copies across town.) Perhaps the Kochs believe that they would create something like The Wall Street Journal, where the reporters do their straightforward jobs while the opinion pages bubble with rancor and joie de guerre. Except the Koch brothers wouldn't be buying The Wall Street Journal. They would be buying a bunch of local papers.
Other than a few editorials tilting to their views, it is hard to imagine how they get a new conservative national voice to rise from Los Angeles, Chicago, Hartford and Baltimore — or in Spanish.
Have I mentioned that the news business is not very good? While the Kochs are rich enough not to have to worry about this, money is exactly the thing the rich worry about. So they will likely soon find themselves more concerned about paper costs than tax rates. And social-media traffic. The Koch brothers, like many rich men in their 70s, still read newspapers. But every day, there are fewer newspaper readers. So the brothers would find themselves not just worried about how to communicate their conservative views, but how to do it in a way that generates likes and shares and page views.
It is just a bit astonishing for people in the newspaper business to think about what owning a newspaper, no less a chain of newspapers, would mean for people who have never owned one, or worked for one.
The Koch brothers, though, probably believe that their success as businessmen means they have as good or better a chance to sort out the newspaper business as the professionals who have so far failed in this regard.
If they can, more power to them.
A bit more likely, they would become, not just to the liberal establishment but to their friends and fellow billionaires as well, figures of head-smacking pity and amusement.