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Could eight major U.S. papers soon be under the wing of billionaire brothers, Charles and David Koch?
Koch Industries is reported to be exploring a bid to buy the Tribune Company’s eight regional newspapers, including The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun, The Orlando Sentinel and The Hartford Courant. There is also a possibility of buying Hoy, the second-largest Spanish-language daily newspaper in the United States.
The Tribune Company emerged from bankruptcy on 31 Dec. and its newspapers are valued at roughly $623 million. The interest in newspapers is part of a three-pronged plan to persuade Americans that a small government is best, according to The New York Times.
Charles and David Koch both run Koch Industries, one of the largest privately owned companies in the U.S. The energy and manufacturing conglomerate based in Wichita, Kansas, has an annual revenue of about $115 billion. The brothers, known as being politically libertarian, have advocated for decreasing the size of the government and loosening restrictions on taxes and regulation.
The buy would be their first foray into media. If they become publishers, there is a possibility that the papers would reflect their views. Concerns over US newspaper owners pushing their own agendas have grown in recent years, as the Times reported last summer:
“There is a growing worry that the falling value and failing business models of many American newspapers could lead to a situation where moneyed interests buy papers and use them to prosecute a political and commercial agenda.”
With the LA Times being the biggest seller, backlash has emerged at the thought of the conservative brothers taking helm of a liberal paper. A petition created by progressive website Daily Kos and the L.A.-based Courage Campaign organization was signed last month by thousands to stop the buyout.
When LA Weekly first announced the Kochs’ interest last month, reports heated up over a possible bidding war with another interested buyer, Rupert Murdoch. He is reportedly very interested in acquiring the LA Times, which would add to his empire of 175+ newspapers.
Leading the group of interested buyers are billionaire Eli Broad and Ronald W. Burkle, both Los Angles residents and prominent Democratic donors. The Tribune Company reportedly is looking to sell all eight papers and their operations as a bundle, yet it could decide to hold onto the papers if they don’t like an offer.
With even The Mail Online now implementing paid content, a turning point for paywalls seems imminent. But an emerging alternative, “a la carte journalism,” allows readers pay per article, rather than subscribing to whole publications.
“We are flooded with so much information that we don’t really want or need,” Michael Wheeler, founder of an “a la carte journalism” startup, said in an interview with The News Hook. “I spend a lot of time on my RSS feeds saying, ‘No, I don’t want to read that.’
“People do that in traditional media,” he added. “You open up The New York Times and thumb through 5-6 pages before you pick a story to read.”
Wheeler’s Salem, Massachusetts-based CrowdNe.ws calls itself an “app store for news,” and Susan Johnston of Ebyline compared it to the iTunes of journalism. The “disruptive” startup allows users to make micropayments for individual articles. While still in beta testing, an article by Alessandra Bianchi on helicopter parenting is available on the platform at user-determined prices of US$.05 or more.
Wheeler told The News Hook that CrowdNe.ws has not determined its pricing structure, but it is considering market-determined prices, depending on individual articles’ popularity, and journalist-determined prices. He said he is convinced that readers are willing to pay for articles that interest them.
Wheeler’s conviction is supported by Publishers Association data, which found that e-book sales increased 188 percent in the first half of last year, resulting in €145 million of digital sales. This data is evidence that “there are readers out there who are willing to lay down serious money to fill up their devices,” according to New Model Journalism.
And several publishers are jumping on the opportunity. As The Editor’s Weblog has previously reported, The Tornoto Star’s Star Dispatches program sells narrative pieces for $2.99 each, with the option of subscribing to all such stories for $1 a week. This model has proven successful for the newspaper, with Paula Todd’s 14,000-word piece on tracking a serial child killer generating more than $200,000 in revenue and 65,000 downloads, Gin Sexton reported.
The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, WIRED Magazine and The Dallas Morning News are among other publishers that sell staff-written e-books, ranging from long-term investigations, compelling narratives and essay collections to a retirement planner. Prices range from less than a dollar to upwards of $30.
To keep up with this trend, recently-launched Thin Reads keeps track of e-singles as they’re published. The site’s database includes more than 600 e-singles from 2010 to present and more than 150 publishers, including ProPublica, Byliner and GQ Magazine, according to paidContent.
But is a la carte journalism truly the “future of news,” as CrowdNe.ws aspires to be? Self-proclaimed “Newsosaur” Alan D. Mutter said CrowdNe.ws’ goal is “noble” and the system has potential. But the system would be more successful if it aggregates content from different publishers in the way Piano Media and Press+ have, he said.
“For me individually, having to get out of my credit card to pay 23 cents, is not a great business model,” he told The News Hook.
The “a la carte” move to simplify the news marketplace is part of a growing trend that has decreased the importance of journalists’ ties to publications. Recently, other startups that created author-specific paywalls and allowed freelancers to name the price of their reporting have increased the power of journalists themselves.