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Koch downplays report of newspaper-company purchase

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Monday, April 22, 2013, at 6:10 p.m.
  • Updated Monday, April 22, 2013, at 11:42 p.m.

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Read the New York Times’ blog on the Koch brothers’ possible bid for the Tribune Co. newspapers at http://nyti.ms/ZckqGU

Koch Industries officials Monday were downplaying a weekend report by the New York Times that the Wichita-based company is aggressively pursuing the Tribune Co.’s newspaper portfolio, a story that first broke six weeks ago.

Koch spokeswoman Melissa Cohlmia said Monday afternoon that “the New York Times and many other stories have this in common – lots of conjecture and many unnamed and anonymous sources.”

She said Koch Industries is “not bound by the industries we currently work in.”

“We are bounded only by our capabilities, not industry areas, and ... we approach any acquisition or investment with an eye to how it adds value for both the buyer and the seller,” Cohlmia said.

A month ago, Cohlmia also downplayed the company’s interest with a similar statement..

In a Sunday blog, the Times speculates that the Koch brothers could be serious bidders for the Tribune’s newspapers, which include some of the nation’s largest – the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun, Orlando Sentinel, the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel and the Hartford Courant. Bidding should begin in earnest in May, the Times reported.

The Eagle, citing Koch officials and the journalism-business website JimRomenesko.com, reported the possible purchase on March 12. Since the Times blog was published on Saturday, the possible deal has come under fire on the Internet as a means for Charles and David Koch to push their political views – emphasizing free economic markets and limited government interference with a Libertarian strain – on the country through the news media.

A major newspaper chain is a natural fit for the company, said Scott Reinardy, associate professor of journalism at the University of Kansas.

“Why not?” he asked. “They spent all that advertising money in the last election and didn’t get the outcome they desired, so why not take a different track?”

What’s less clear, Reinardy said, is whether the company considers newspapers an investment or a political vehicle.

“Certainly, Rupert Murdoch was seen as doing that when he bought the Wall Street Journal,” Reinardy said. “But from all accounts, his influence hasn’t floated down into the newsroom.

“The Koch situation is a little different, though, because they traditionally haven’t worked in this realm as a media mogul. It appears on the surface that their motives could be a little different than building a media empire.”

Reinardy recalled “the journalism of the late 1800s, ‘Citizen Kane’ journalism.”

“Arenas for you to present your platform, whatever that may be, and extinguish the platform of others,” he said. “Will they be that hands-on? That’s the major question.”

The Tribune emerged from bankruptcy on Dec. 31, and is seeking a buyer for the newspapers, which are collectively valued at $623 million.

The Times blog says Koch Industries recently retained a consultant to evaluate the papers, and claims that a company representative contacted Los Angeles Times officials this month to discuss a bid.

Any such sale negotiations would represent an apparent shift from last year, when Charles Koch, during an exclusive interview with The Eagle, downplayed his company’s interest in newspapers. Dave Robertson, the president of Koch Industries, also downplayed Koch’s interest in media companies during a subsequent interview last year. However, the Times blog indicates the newspaper idea was born three years ago, during one of the brothers’ semi-annual meetings of wealthy political donors.

The Koch family is no stranger to newspapers. The brothers’ grandfather Harry was a printer’s apprentice who operated a weekly newspaper in Texas.

Koch Industries is one of the largest privately held companies in America, focusing primarily on manufacturing and energy.

Reach Bill Wilson at 316-268-6290 or bwilson@wichitaeagle.com.

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