How the L.A. Times can stop the Kochs

April 25, 2013

The Koch brothers have become the nation’s leading cheerleaders for free markets where consumers, employees, entrepreneurs and investors are free to pursue their own selfish interests without interference from government or unions or anyone else for that matter.

Now comes word that the billionaire brothers want to buy up the Los Angeles Times, one of the nation’s last remaining quality newspapers, or its parent, the Tribune Co., which has only recently emerged from bankruptcy reorganization following the disastrous takeover by real estate mogul Sam Zell.


Charles Koch applauds Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in November 2011. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

All this has come to a head because the bottom-fishing hedge funds that grabbed control of Tribune during a thoroughly mismanaged bankruptcy process are determined to sell the company to the highest bidder. The money men at Oaktree Capital Management and Angelo, Gordon & Co. don’t care one whit about the impact of a sale on the Tribune’s employees or journalism, or the communities it serves, or the role its newspapers play in the democratic life of the nation. They are busy gussying up the balance sheet before the investment bankers at J.P. Morgan and Evercore Partners begin shopping the company around to deep-pocketed billionaires.  Reportedly high on the list are the Kochs, Rupert Murdoch and Los Angeles billionaires Eli Broad, Ron Burkle and David Geffen.

The newspaper employees of Tribune — those who haven’t lost their job or driven away in disgust — have had their pensions robbed, their pay and benefits cut, their professional dignity assaulted and their enthusiasm sapped by the financial types who have serially raped these once-great newspapers over the past six years.  As it turns out, they now have a golden opportunity to turn the tables on their tormenters and exact some revenge.

At its heart, any news organization is only as good as the journalists who put it out.  Without the journalism, there are no readers, and without the readers there are no advertisers and subscription fees.  It all starts with the news and opinions and graphics and photographs that journalists produce. And if those journalists decide collectively to walk out the door one day, the readers and advertisers are almost certain to follow.

A new owner, of course, could hire new journalists, and certainly there are plenty of them out there looking for a job.  But it would take time to attract them, get them working as a team and weed out the inevitable clunkers – and in any case, they are unlikely to have the experience and institutional memory of the people they replace.  And in the meantime, competing news organizations would be quick to pick up Tribune’s stars and use them to lure away readers and advertisers at a time when circulation and revenue are already under pressure.  Hell, in the age of the Internet, the rebellious journalists could easily start their own news organizations and grab a good chunk of their old readership within weeks.

This is a rare moment for Tribune’s beleaguered journalists.  For the first time in a long time, they actually have leverage.  They’d be crazy not to use it.

All it would take would be a letter to Tribune’s owners and investment bankers declaring that if the newspapers were sold to an owner who would not invest in quality, politically independent journalism, they will take their talent and experience elsewhere. A one-day strike or sick-out on the day the company is put up for sale would help to reinforce the threat.

Under such circumstances, Tribune and bankers would have a legal obligation to disclose this substantial risk to any prospective buyers in its prospectus.  The effect would be to lower the eventual sale price, no matter who eventually buys it.  And there is a good chance it would scare off any buyers whose aim is to turn Tribune’s news organizations into mouthpieces for ideological propaganda.

For any one journalist to make such a threat would be folly.  For hundreds to do so collectively would be to lob a stink bomb into this carefully orchestrated sales effort.

Some might wonder what would happen if the threat fails and a hostile new owner takes over and promptly fires all the signatories. My guess is that if an owner has such little respect for value of knowledgeable and experienced journalists, then the chances are those journalists would wind up leaving or being fired for other reasons. The eventual outcome would the same either way.

As it happens, such a “declaration of independence” by Tribune journalists would be perfectly in keeping with the Koch brothers’ philosophy.  It would not involve government or unions in any way, but simply represent the action of free men and women exercising their constitutional rights to free speech and association to further their selfish economic interests.  What could be more “free-market” than that?

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Ezra Klein · April 25, 2013