February 24, 2018

“Stop Koch” – How Dumb Can You Be?

The liberal advocacy organization Free Press is promoting a “Stop the Koch Brothers” campaign that pleads for its members to sign the following online petition:

Dear Tribune Company:

We need journalism that serves communities, not existing agendas. We need media owners who will encourage their reporters to expose corporate and government wrongdoing. Charles and David Koch are more interested in serving their own interests than in providing the news and reporting that people need.

Don’t sell your papers to the Koch brothers.

Really? Then why didn’t Free Press put on its battle armor and try to stop Warren Buffett from buying 88 newspapers, including The Eagle of Bryan/College Station, Texas, or all of Media General’s newspapers, or the Omaha World-Herald, or the Buffalo News?

The answer is probably that the Free Press and other liberals prefer Buffett’s raise-taxes-on-the-rich politics to the avowed right-wing, lower-taxes-on-the-rich and small-government politics of the Koch brothers. Also, liberals assume that the Koch brothers would buy the Tribune Company newspapers (Los Angels Times, Chicago Tribune, and the Baltimore Sun, among others) for ideological reasons in order to promote their conservative agenda.

The conviction that the Kochs are up to their right-wing tricks also seems to be held by reporters in the target papers’ newsrooms, as reported on Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab This Week In Review:

The Washington Post’s Harold Meyerson said a straw poll of L.A. Times journalists revealed many of them planned to leave if the Kochs took over. (The Post’s Steve Pearlstein urged them to do just that.) Meyerson cautioned the Tribune Co.’s board not to see a sale to the Kochs as a purely financial move, but as a political move with potentially disastrous implications.

The Tribune Company has just come out of bankruptcy, and the final decision on a sale will undoubtedly be made on the basis of fiduciary responsibility by the current owners of stock, as it should be in a free-market economy, and not decided by whom the employees think is the most politically correct buyer.

For the reporters to quit if the Kochs buy the LA Times is like curators at the Metropolitan Museum of Art quitting in protest because the Kochs have been huge contributors to the great museum, or nurses quitting in protest because the Kochs gave a new wing to their hospital. Do upset journalists believe the Kochs told curators at the Met what paintings to buy or doctors at hospitals they funded how to treat patients?

And in the case of drowning newspapers such as the LA Times, employees shouldn’t care if whoever rescues them is liberal or conservative, just as long as it’s not Sam Zell, who bought the Tribune Company just to waterboard it. It’s virtually inconceivable that the Kochs could be worse than Sam Zell and Randy Michaels.

Furthermore, as pointed out in the Nieman Lab’s This Week In Review:

Forbes’ Tim Worstall argued that the potential political influence of Koch-owned newspapers was being overstated, however, because newspapers’ political views are inevitably determined by those of their audience. “Proprietors do not mould the views of the readers. They chase them instead,” he wrote. The Atlantic’s Garance Franke-Ruta made a similar point, saying that big cities make their papers liberal, not the other way around. Meanwhile, Slate’s Matthew Yglesias (a liberal himself) saw Koch-owned major papers as a possible boon for the country, as a way to improve the anemic state of conservative journalism.

Also, changing ownership of a newspaper won’t necessarily turn around its decline in readership and revenue. As Clay Shirky brilliantly points out in this interview with The European about post-industrial journalism:

The easiest way to get people in institutions to do interesting new things is for that institution to go bankrupt and for those people to change jobs. It’s often more trouble to try and modify existing institutions than it is to start new ones.

In addition, Shirky makes the point that what must change is the culture of the newspaper business, not just the ownership, business model, or procedures. Shirky implies that combining digital and traditional newsrooms is also a bad idea. I think combined newsrooms tend not to work because digital and print are two entirely different mediums with different languages, cultures, ethics, standards, ways of thinking, ways of writing, and ways of organizing.

Not only can you not combine newsrooms, but also you can’t combine sales forces. You can’t teach old-dog print salespeople to sell digital advertising – those dogs won’t hunt. I’ve seen newspaper companies make this mistake over and over because combining sales forces is a decision made by beancounters – it’s cheaper to have one ineffective sales force than to have two effective ones.

Most newspaper companies, though not all, have made one dumb decision after another for the last 15 years, and the Tribune Company is now being encouraged by liberal ideologues to make another dumb decision by not selling to the Kochs.