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Here's What Happened the Last Time a Conservative Tycoon Took Over a Top American Newspaper

Rupert Murdoch killed WSJ's in-depth investigative journalism, the only thing a newspaper is still good for.

by Brian Merchant
Apr 22 2013, 7:45pm
Image: Flickr

A pair of famous conservative oil magnates want to buy one of the biggest newspaper companies in America. I'm talking, of course, about Charles and David Koch, who currently wish to purchase seven high-profile regional newspapers from the Tribune Company, including the Baltimore Sun, the Chicago Tribune, and the Los Angeles Times, the fourth largest paper in the nation. The New York Times reports that its sources at the Tribune Company, which just emerged from bankruptcy proceedings and is putting its papers up for sale, say that the Kochs "." That's because they're willing to buy up every title the company owns, instead of just the LA Times.

Now, the last time a conservative media tycoon took over a top American newspaper, it didn't exactly lead to a reporting renaissance. Basically, in-depth, long-form journalism dropped off a cliff. Rupert Murdoch had little interest in long-form investigations, so after he bought the Wall Street Journal in 2007, his editorial board gave them the axe. Here's proof

This chart was put together by the Columbia Journalism Review, and it reveals the number of stories over 2,500 words published at the WSJ since 2002. It went from over 200 a year in 2002 to just a handful in 2011.

So what? Here's what: Top tier newspapers are (were?) one of the few places left where journalists can carry out important in-depth investigations, unearthing valuable information for the public at large. This brand of reportage is currently the most endangered in our delightful era of cable news and blogs and co-sponsored micro-tweets or whatever. Also noteworthy: the WSJ hasn't won a Pulitzer for its reportage—just its opinion page—since Murdoch took over. 

It doesn't look like the Koch Brothers would do things differently. The Kochs say they want to get their political viewpoint—anti-regulation, small government Tea Party-style libertarianism—better expressed in the news. Unlike for Murdoch, who is a media tycoon by trade, even this raft of prestige papers, worth upwards of $600 million in total, would be something of a vanity project for the Kochs, who are among the richest men on the planet. Either way, it's easy to see the trend re-asserting itself if the Kochs were to buy out Tribune: more space for conservative voices in the op-ed pages, sure, but also, probably, less focus on in-depth reportage. After all, in-depth reportage has a nasty habit of uncovering corporate malfeasance and environmental degradation and so forth—things the Koch brothers have a vested interest in not drawing attention to

From where I'm standing, that would be the biggest loss in the transaction. I don't really care how many right-wing op-eds the LA Times might run if the Koch bros were behind the wheel. They'll just get drowned out by talking heads on TV and blogged-over by more nimble voices on the web, which is slowly beating the op-ed page to death anyway. But deep investigations into things like fracking, local corruption, labor practices—that's the kind of thing we need more of.

If the Kochs killed long-form reportage the same way that Murdoch did, citizens in each of the effected regions could lose a major resource for public information. But screw them. What we really need more of is right-wing cranks complaining about Obama and the EPA and telling poor people to work harder.