On Sunday, a front-page story in
The New York Times described the efforts of Charles and David Koch, “the billionaire industrialists and supporters of libertarian causes,” to buy the Tribune Company newspapers. Tribune holdings include the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

The Times story revealed two important developments about the potential bid. The first is that the brothers are serious contenders to win the bidding. “The thinking inside the Tribune Company, people close to the deal said, is that Koch Industries could prove the most appealing buyer” because of their willingness to buy the entire chain of papers, the Times reported.

The second is that the bid appears to be part of a carefully planned strategy for advancing their conservative vision. According to the story, three years ago the Kochs gathered like-minded donors to develop a 10-year plan to shift national policy to the right. The plan had three areas of focus: two of which, educating grassroots activists and influencing politics, are often associated with the brothers. The third is not: media. The article suggests that the Tribune bid is part of a Koch media strategy, though it does not provide evidence to illuminate how that might work.

But there is a key clue to the Koch brothers’ vision of the media— the Kochs’ leading media investment to date, an ambitious right-leaning investigative outlet called the Franklin Center and its watchdog.org network, which defines itself as neither partisan nor political. We examined these sites earlier this month, and that story is below:

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 its 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. (Editor’s note: See comment from author below detailing the nature of the financial relationship between the Kochs and the Watchdog sites.)

What kind of stories?

Sasha Chavkin covers political money and influence for CJR's United States Project, our politics and policy desk. He has written for ProPublica, the Center for Public Integrity, and The New York World. Follow him on Twitter @sashachavkin.