Los Angeles Times Building

In tough financial times, newspapers can't afford to be choosy about their owners

To those protesting outside the Los Angeles Times and collecting signatures to prevent the dreaded Koch brothers from acquiring the newspaper, consider a popular adage with particular resonance in the newspaper industry these days.

Beggars can’t be choosers.

Activists led by couragecampaign.org note that they have collected 500,000 signatures urging Tribune not to sell their flagship print property to the notoriously conservative Kochs, who have used their wealth to fund various forms of activism (including the Tea Party movement) and prosecute a political agenda. That’s an especially interesting number, since it happens to surpass the recent print circulation figures for the Times, which have plummeted by more than half since its heyday.

It would be lovely, of course, if all newspapers could be unfettered from commercial demands and pressures and run as public trusts by benevolent billionaires, who want nothing more than to serve the community. Unfortunately, such selfless and saintly benefactors are in short supply.

So if news outlets like the Times and Newsweek — which is also reported to be on the sales block — are going to survive, some of them will have to be owned by people of less-than-sterling character. And many of those up in arms about the prospect of the ideologically minded Kochs expanding their footprint in media for nefarious reasons, I’ll wager, couldn’t be bothered to subscribe to a newspaper, which would be the most logical hedge against making such outlets vulnerable to acquisitions in the first place. (Disclosure: I worked for the Times until 2003, when the paper still boasted daily print circulation around a million and an errantly delivered Sunday edition could crush a good-sized cat.)

When Daily Variety went out of print, several people emailed asking for a copy of the final edition, wanting to possess one as a keepsake. To which I said, “Where were you ghoulish bastards when we needed you?”

The same no doubt goes for many of those currently expressing concern the future and independence of newspapers. After all, it’s not like the economics of the industry went sliding off a cliff overnight, or Tribune’s financial troubles — after undergoing bankruptcy thanks to the slash-and-burn stewardship of Sam Zell — just emerged.

Tribune CEO Peter Liguori has downplayed the “noise” about a possible sale and potential buyers, but nobody should be surprised if the newspapers don’t fit into the reorganized company’s longterm plans.

As the New York Times noted, the Kochs would hardly be the first billionaires to see the advantages of owning media, beyond just what they can rake in advertising-wise — including, not incidentally, the Times’ own sometimes-ignominious past as a right-wing mouthpiece for the Chandler family, before Otis Chandler sought to transform the Times into a world-class newspaper.

Sad as it is to say, though, these assets clearly aren’t what they used to be. So for newspapers eager to survive in the digital age, the new rule might be that while you can pick your friends, you probably won’t have much say about your owners.

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