Before the Koch brothers and Time Inc., before Better Homes and Gardens, Family Circle, Parenting and 17 local TV stations, there was the Iowa Farmer’s Tribune and its fiery populist politics.
Meredith Corp., the Des Moines-based media giant known for its family friendly publications and local TV outlets, made headlines this week when it announced that it was buying Time for $2.8 billion – with an infusion of $650 million from the private equity fund of the conservative Koch brothers, Charles and David. Time and the Kochs say they are passive investors who have no interest in shaping the editorial content of the Time publications. Others aren’t so sure.
Whatever the future holds for Time, the acquisition of the national news weekly and a business relationship with the Kochs represents a remarkable turn of events for Meredith. The company known for its agricultural and lifestyle journalism has deep roots in the 19th century’s left-leaning agrarian populism — a movement whose tenets included intense suspicion of rich men like the Koch brothers who were viewed as plutocratic robber barons.
“While some people are clucking over the potential for the Koch brothers to insert themselves into the editorial decisions of Time magazine editors, those of us who are familiar with the origins of Meredith Corp. are wondering whether those Koch boys really know what they have gotten themselves into,” Randy Evans, retired opinion page editor of the Des Moines Register, said via email.
The Meredith family gravitated to publishing in the early 1890s as the populist uprising swept across the Midwest and South. English-born Thomas Meredith was a prosperous Iowa farmer sympathetic to the populist movement, which favored a graduated income tax, government control of the railroads and an inflated currency that would favor farmers and others drowning in debt. And in the early 1890s, there was a populist publication in Iowa’s capital that needed his help.
The Iowa Tribune, a weekly newspaper edited by a pair of former congressmen, Edward Gillette and James B. Weaver, had been publishing since the early 1880s. Its front pages, featuring turgid speeches about free silver, and denunciations of malevolent monopolies and bankers, read exactly like a publication edited by a couple of politicians. “Monopoly is cruel,” the paper declared in a characteristic rhetorical flourish on Jan. 7, 1891. “It has an insatiable maw but no heart.” There was verse — “Only a farmer, the millionaires say/His lot is to work, and ours is to play” — but it wasn’t particularly poetic.
Under Weaver and Gillette, the Tribune took on “anything and everything that seemed to be not in harmony with high ideals of civic duty,” one Iowa editor recalled. But it didn’t make money.
Its editors admitted as much with a plaintive front-page plea in August 1891. “The reform press has been and must continue to be the chief instrument in educating the people,” the Tribune declared. The Tribune urged populists and their allies to “aid the struggling reform press … and refuse further ‘sustenance to the enemy.’ ”
Enter Meredith. By early 1892, he was on the masthead of the rechristened Iowa Farmer’s Tribune — and changes that foreshadowed the distinctive Meredith approach appeared quickly. Broadsheets were abandoned for a more compact page size. The publication began to prominently feature lifestyle articles and agricultural advice. While the publication’s emphasis had changed, it still proudly declared that it supported “equal rights to all, special privileges for none” — a favorite populist slogan.
Meredith’s grandson, Edwin, went to work at the Tribune in 1893, and he took over the publication when his grandfather gave it to him as a wedding present two years later. In the early years of the new century, he decided to start another publication, historian Carol Reuss wrote in the Annals of Iowa. Successful Farmer — an agricultural journal without the partisan slant of the Farmer’s Tribune — debuted in 1902. Two years later, the younger Meredith sold the Farmer’s Tribune to focus on his new venture, according to Reuss.
The Meredith publishing juggernaut was on its way, but the family wasn’t through with politics just yet. Edwin Meredith ran as a Democrat for Senate in 1914 and governor two years later, losing both times. In 1920, in the final year of the Wilson administration, he became secretary of agriculture.
In the years to come, Meredith rolled out Better Homes and Gardens — originally called Fruit, Garden and Home — and other titles “focused on family and women,” according to the New York Times. “It has eschewed an expensive headquarters in Manhattan and maintained a diversified portfolio — the company also owns local television stations — that has allowed Meredith to better weather the economic storm that has faced print publishers.”
The company has come a long way from its early associations with agrarian populism, Evans said.
“The public and the Kochs may think of Meredith as a collection of magazines focused on such polite subjects as cooking, gardening, sewing and decorating,” Evans said. “It is that today, but Edwin T. Meredith was hip-deep in the populist movement in the late 1800s. The anti-business ideas of populists and their support for the income tax would curl the toenails of those Koch boys.”
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