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What Shrinking Newsrooms Mean in the Age of the Koch Brothers and Billionaire Donors

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Back during the not-so-distant glory days of New Jersey's Star-Ledger reign as a regional newspaper powerhouse, the Newark, N.J., newsroom in the 2000s was bursting with 350 journalists who covered the entire state and pocketed Pulitzers for their coverage of local politicians. Back when Tony Soprano made Jersey mob cool, each week during the show's opening the fictional wise guy paid homage to the daily by sauntering down his driveway to retrieve the Star-Ledger.

That's now all a memory. Last week, the Star-Ledger's owner announced massive layoffs at the newspaper as part of a larger effort at consolidation. Today, entire sections of the Newark newsroom sit empty; a newsroom that has shed an astonishing 240 jobs since 2008, or two-thirds of its former staff.

All this, at a time when the Star-Ledger's detailed, hometown coverage of the unraveling scandals involving Gov. Chris Christie had become must-reads for journalists and news junkies alike.

Philadelphia columnist Will Bunch called last week's Star-Ledger pink slips for reporters the "best news" of Christie's career. Why? "With fewer of them on the beat, Christie -- and all the other corrupt politicians of the Garden State -- will be able to keep more of their secrets from the public than ever before."

Even before the scandalous lane-closings at the George Washington Bridge, the Star-Ledger, as Bunch highlighted, had ferreted out all sorts of unseemly transactions embedded in the boss-style politics that still dominates the Garden State.

But the sad news regarding the Star-Ledger isn't just about the challenges New Jersey's largest newspaper faces trying to cover the 11th most populous state with a newsroom one-third its previous size. After all, the slow-motion decline of American newspapers has been on morbid display for years now.

The larger, disturbing question is what happens to newsgathering, and what happens to a democracy, when the cutbacks show no signs of abating while at the same time new, super-donor forces in American politics, led by people like the Koch brothers, exert unprecedented influence via staggering sums of money, misinformation, and faux news on the state level. And what happens when those players remain committed to operating behind a cloak of secrecy?

"We are going to consolidate ourselves right out of a democracy," quipped one New Jersey journalist last week.

It's true that there's currently a mini-boom in digitally-based data journalism, with several promising sites launching or planning to so so soon. But that brand of explanatory, often wonkish storytelling is separate from the traditional, day-to-day digging that dailies have done; the kind of reporting that sheds light on public officials and the intersection of money and politics.

Note that the Star-Ledger "purge" unfolded the same week the United States Supreme Court, in a party-line 5-4 decision, eliminated further restrictions on campaign donations made by America's super-rich. The Court also signaled it might be ready to do away with campaign finance regulations all together, a radical position now endorsed by the Republican Party. ("The Court's decisions have empowered a new class of American political oligarchs," warned campaign reformer Fred Wertheimer.)

Also note the Star-Ledger wipe-out arrived the same week that secretive super-donor and billionaire industrialist Charles Koch took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal to pen a self-pitying essay about the nasty attacks he allegedly suffers as he and his brother pump massive amounts of cash into conservative coffers and wage a relentless war against President Obama. It's the same Koch brothers who shroud their political activities in secrecy and who often attack journalists who try to uncover the truth about them.

Charles and David Koch aren't alone among right-wing donors eager to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to defeat Democrats and to permanently alter the political landscape. Aspiring Republican presidential candidates recently traveled to Las Vegas for the so-called Sheldon Adelson Primary; to court the casino billionaire who spent $92 million in a failed attempt to defeat Obama in 2012.

Unlike Adelson, however, the Koch brothers are helping to build an enormous, sprawling, and unprecedented infrastructure not only to help elect Republicans, including a Republican president, but to try to rewrite the laws across the country. And it's all done in the name of curtailing government regulations; regulations that effect the brothers' huge energy and chemical conglomerate, the second-largest, privately-held company in the U.S.

Just look at how Koch-backed groups were instrumental in defeating a vote by workers to unionize at a local Volkswagen plant in Tennessee. And how newspapers last year in Ohio cited a sham think tank, the Buckeye Institute, dozens of times and not once mentioned its ties to the Kochs.

The numbers behind the infrastructure, so far, are staggering. "The political network spearheaded by conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch has expanded into a far-reaching operation of unrivaled complexity, built around a maze of groups that cloaks its donors," the Washington Post reported this year. "Together, the 17 conservative groups that made up the network raised at least $407 million during the 2012 campaign."

And a key to the operation, and one that's so troubling for the future of news, is secrecy. The super-rich donors remain largely unknown and by design. The fact that news organizations could not determine how much the groups spent in 2012 until a year or two after the campaigns highlights the difficulty in penetrating those dark spaces.

"It is a very sophisticated and complicated structure," Lloyd Hitoshi Mayer, a University of Notre Dame Law School professor told the Post after examining the groups' tax filing. "It's designed to make it opaque as to where the money is coming from and where the money is going."

Meanwhile, the Koch-affiliated infrastructure includes obvious efforts to obfuscate the truth. A key outlet within the Koch's constellation is Americans for Prosperity, which "spent $122 million leading up to the 2012 campaign and has already spent more than $30 million in the past six months attacking Obamacare and Democratic senators up for reelection this fall," according to The New Republic.

Purposefully and unapologetically peddling misinformation about pressing public policy initiatives that affect millions of Americans, the independent site Politifact has fact-checked 13 Americans for Prosperity attacks ads since 2010. Eleven have been tagged as inaccurate. Just two have been deemed to be even "half true."

And then there's the Franklin Center, "a multimillion-dollar organization whose websites and affiliates provide free statehouse reporting to local newspapers and other media across the country," as Media Matters previously reported. "Funded by major conservative donors, staffed by veterans of groups affiliated with the Koch brothers, and maintaining a regular presence hosting right-wing events, the organization boasts of its ability to fill the void created by state newsroom layoffs."

As one local newspaper editor put it, "It was basically a lobbying organization that linked to a news arm."

So while once-thriving, independent newsrooms like the Star-Ledger continue to be bled dry, faux news operations like the Franklin Center are buoyed by secretive donations from right-wing billionaires.

That's a dangerous equation for any democracy.

Crossposted at Media Matters.