Tribune Company’s moves to sell its newspapers—a string that includes the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune—has reportedly sparked the interest of a number of heavyweight financiers. These include familiar media moguls like Warren Buffett and Rupert Murdoch. But heads turned when another pair of possible bidders emerged early in March: the billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch.
The Koch brothers, of course, are best known for funding conservative causes and conservative politicians. Unlike Buffett, who has purchased 63 newspapers in the last 15 months, and Murdoch, whose News Corp. owns The Wall Street Journal and the New York Post among many others in Britain and Australia, the brothers don’t have much of a track record of media ownership.
As news of their interest in the Tribune newspapers spread, Koch Companies spokeswoman Missy Cohlmia declined as a matter of policy to confirm or deny a bid. At the same time, though, she sought to dispel concerns that the Koch brothers would seek to transform Tribune newspapers into an arm of the broad network of conservative opinion and policy shops whose activities they underwrite. “We respect the independence of the journalistic institutions referenced in today’s news stories,” Cohlmia said in a brief statement to CJR.
That didn’t stop some observers from worrying out loud, particularly on the left, about the political orientation of those papers, particularly their editorial pages. “You thought Rupert Murdoch was bad? Just wait till you meet the Kochtopus,” wrote J. Gibson on Daily Kos. In fact, there are no apples-to-apples comparisons to help predict whether the Koch brothers would insist on editorial pages at Tribune papers that match their views. Mainstream media outlets tend to have their own news cultures, and can be slow to change their spots. Anyway, the Koch brothers don’t own any.
Still, some clues to the brothers’ media priorities emerge from their biggest journalism investment to date: years of substantial and undisclosed donations to an ambitious, right-leaning investigative nonprofit focused on state and regional issues. The outlet, called the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, was founded in 2009, as it’s About page explains,
to help fill the void created as the nation’s newspapers cut back on their statehouse news coverage and investigative reporting in the wake of falling circulation and revenues. We look at the bigger picture, provide analysis that’s often missing from modern news stories, and do more than provide “he-said, she-said” reports from the state Capitol.
In 2011, fully 95 percent of the Franklin Center’s revenues came from a charity called Donors Trust, whose top contributors were the Koch brothers. (CJR first profiled the Franklin Center last September.)
The Franklin Center, in turn, created a website of state-based reporting, called Watchdog.org—fed by “a network of journalists reporting on state and local governments.” The Watchdog.org site serves as a hub for stories from Watchdog outlets in 23 states.
What kind of stories?
Here are the headlines featured on Watchdog’s national page on a random Thursday (March 28): What really makes Roger Ailes run? (A rumination inspired by Zev Chafet’s new book. Roger Ailes, Off Camera); The East is red ink: Obama’s China solar model fails; Your taxes help promote the world’s most hated dictators; National GOP boss: Message isn’t broken, but delivery needs some work. Each of the 23 states, meanwhile, gets its own page, with multiple pieces about government. Here are headlines from a random pick, Florida’s top three entries on March 28: Florida Tea Party welcomes gun manufacturers; Pension reform gets too real for Florida Senate Republicans; Florida teachers unions block efforts to reform failing schools.
Like other outlets, Watchdog mixes substantive accountability stories, which mostly focus on misuse of public monies, with analysis, such as Roger Ailes: More Complex than His Critics Would Like to Believe.
“All publications have a mission and a voice,” states the Center’s website. “We are unabashed in ours: to spotlight waste, fraud and misuse of taxpayer dollars by state and local governments. We conform to the Society of Professional Journalists standards, follow AP style and are not partisan or political.”