The Conversation

Why the Koch Brothers Could Be Good for the LA Times

The Koch brothers are reportedly considering making a bid on eight regional newspapers owned by the Tribune Company. The papers include "The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun, The Orlando Sentinel and The Hartford Courant."

The thought of the libertarian billionaires buying a left-leaning paper like the LA Times has many liberals in a tizzy. In his response to the news, Harold Meyerson wrote that the sale would be tantamount to "turning L.A.’s metropolitan daily into a right-wing mouthpiece whose commitment to empirical journalism would be unproven at best."

Over at the Atlantic, Garance Franke-Ruta makes a more sensible argument that big papers tend to be liberal because big cities also tend to be liberal. Hard to argue with that as far as it goes. But it falls apart near the end of her piece when she writes this about the news market in Washington DC:

the Washington market is suffering one of the sharpest newspaper contractions in the country, and it is the printed papers whose conservatism spills over the opinion wall into the news pages that have been having the toughest time of it in this Obama-friendly region. The Washington Times laid off more than 40 percent of its newsroom in 2009, then another 20 people in 2013, and is on track to contract again through another round of layoffs. The Washington Examiner, founded in 2005 with big ambitions and a right-leaning editorial page, just announced it's ceasing near-daily printing and becoming a single weekly magazine plus a website, replacing its original model of a local-news-covering paper with a regional distribution with the only form of media that's even harder to sustain as a business, the weekly newsmagazine (think of the fates of Newsweek, or U.S. News & World Report) with national ambitions.

Some conservative outlets have certainly had a hard time in DC, but so has the progressive Washington Post. Last year the paper experienced an 8.6% drop in daily circulation (6.2% for Sundays). That followed a similar decline the previous year. An analyst quoted by Bloomberg last year summed up the problem, "Print circulation is on a rapid decline at the Post...They need to become less of a newspaper company and much more of a digital news company and a digital advertising company." The Post apparently agrees and is planning to introduce a paywall to its online site this summer. 

The point is, the old regional newspaper model is clearly dying, and not just for conservative outlets. More and more people get their news online making the delivery of a physical paper irrelevant. Print publication will continue to slide and eventually cease, as it already has for many local papers and newsmagazines.

Freed from the tether of a physical publication, newspaper's will become less dependent on their urban, left-leaning readers for support. The LA Times' online future, like that of the Washington Post, probably depends less on attitudes in LA and more on cultivating a mix of readers from around the country (and the rest of the English-speaking world). The progressive media market space is already pretty crowded. An increased awareness of what people living outside the big cities think about issues could help some of these papers diversify and, hopefully, survive.


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