At a Los Angeles Times in-house awards ceremony a week ago, columnist Steve Lopez addressed the elephant in the room.
Speaking to the entire staff, he said, "Raise your hand if you would quit if the paper was bought by Austin Beutner's group." No one raised their hands.
"Raise you hand if you would quit if the paper was bought by Rupert Murdoch." A few people raised their hands.
Facing the elephant trunk-on, "Raise your hand if you would quit if the paper was bought by the Koch brothers." About half the staff raised their hands.
As Tribune Co. emerges from a four-year bankruptcy, the predominantly Democratic city is quivering at the rumor that libertarian billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch may be interested in buying the LA Times. The brothers are believed to be the only group prepared to buy all eight Tribune papers, including the LA Times, Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun, Orlando Sentinel and Hartford Courant, as a package -- how Tribune would like to sell them.
The ownership that most Angelenos -- and Times staff -- seem to favor is a coalition of LA billionaires who have expressed interest in running the paper as a nonprofit, led by former Democratic mayoral candidate Austin Beutner and including prominent Democratic donor Eli Broad.
Many say local ownership is preferable because there's more accountability and involvement. Local owners know and care about the city. Because they live here, they're concerned and accessible. They won't tarnish the paper, because they have local reputations to uphold. It would restore the family feel that the paper had for more than 60 years under the founding leadership of the Chandler family.
However, local ownership can have a dark side. Until the 1960s, the Chandlers used the Times to promote real estate development and Republican ideals. Similarly, when local real estate investor Doug Manchester bought the San Diego Union Tribune in 2011, he turned it into a platform for local business interests. To the dread of most Angelenos, Manchester has expressed interest in buying the LA Times, though he's not considered a frontrunner.
Beutner and Broad have friends, political interests, and business and philanthropic investments across the city. And it's hard to imagine that this wouldn't influence the paper's editorial content.
For example: If Broad was an owner, would he have let the Times run its expose targeting then-Getty CEO Barry Munitz for abusing his expense account? The piece reported the two of them taking international vacations together, at least one on Broad's yacht. The story led to Munitz's resignation.
Perhaps Broad would have let the story run for the sake of the reputation of the paper. Maybe he would have deferred to other friends-of-Eli who wanted Munitz out. Then again, Broad, LA's most generous philanthropist, is a notorious meddler who isn't afraid to piss people off to get his way.
As major players in the city, the names Beutner and Broad regularly appear in the paper. Even if the owners don't interfere, their presence would be in the consciousness of the newsroom. Would reporters, editors and the publisher have the guts to report and run a negative story involving one of their owners? Doubtful.
The fact that Beutner's group would be an oligarchy rather than a monarchy may provide some checks and balances -- even thought Beutner and Broad both tilt left, politically. Their only hope so far of becoming a bipartisan group is Andrew Cherng, founder of the Panda Express and the only Republican reportedly interested in joining the group.
Perhaps one brave Times reporter would go public with a story killed by the new owners. She would lose her job, and it would be written about in The New York Times. And, it would pressure the LA Times owners to be more objective. But many of the people working at the Times support a family or are still developing their careers and can't afford to lose their jobs -- especially in a town with few job opportunities for newspaper journalists.
If half the staff quit under Koch ownership, that would leave half as many people likely to stand up to the owners -- probably the half that would be less likely to do so. Not to mention, it would be a tremendous loss of talented journalists who have built a wealth of LA knowledge and relationships over years of experience.
It is likely that the Beutner coalition sees an LA Times purchase not just as a business investment, but as a local vanity project and perhaps an occasional outlet for their own interests. That's generally how it goes with newspaper owners.
That may not be wonderful, but it's far better that than what the Koch brothers would likely turn the Times into -- namely, a national bullhorn for conservative causes like lowering taxes and lessening regulation. At a conservative conference in Aspen, Colo., three years ago, the brothers said their 10-year political plan includes using the media to advocate for smaller government.
Whichever owner wins out, change is coming, and LA readers and journalists need to be paying attention. The LA Times largely decides what is LA news. The opening segment of LA's public radio programs, such as AirTalk and Which Way, LA, is generally a story on page one of the Times that day. All LA news outlets follow and cover at least some of what the Times reports.
So if the agenda at the Times changes, the agenda at the other LA news outlets will change -- unless those news outlets are watching carefully. LA has to worry more about the stories that the Times stops covering than stories that are covered with a bias.
An example of how bias can take the form of lack of coverage is Fox News' scant coverage of the national gun control debate. When President Barack Obama gave his moving speech chastising Congress for failing to pass background checks, Fox cut away to a panel discussion on the liberal media bias before the president had even finished his first sentence.
It seems the rationale is that the more silence there is on gun control, the greater the likelihood that status quo will continue. So the silence is what we have to listen for.
All LA journalists, including those at the Times, will need to research the friends and interests of the paper's new owners and make sure they don't get special treatment. If Times reporters hit a wall, will other LA journalists step up to report on those topics?
That must include pre-emptive, entrepreneurial stories, not just reactive stories. It must mean digging for what's broken but ignored, what's going on behind the press releases and City Council or County Supervisors' meetings. It must mean holding politicians accountable for what they said six months ago.
It means following up once the excitement has died down. For example, with the cop-killer Chris Dorner, LA had a few days of a Batman-like adventure story. It's the kind of stuff a lot of journalists live for. But they have to also live for the follow up. LAPD Chief Charlie Beck promised to openly investigate whether Dorner really was unlawfully fired or not. That was the time for LA journalists to investigate racial discrimination within the LAPD. Just this week, the Times reported that Dorner prompted dozens of fired cops to challenge their firings.
Hard-hitting coverage calls for many reporters putting in many hours of hard work. Unfortunately, LA -- the second-largest city in the U.S. -- is far from overpopulated with working journalists. No LA newsroom is close to even half the size of the Times' 500-person editorial staff, reduced as it is from its peak a decade ago. At HuffPost LA, there are a whopping three of us.
One thing sure to happen if the Koch brothers take over the paper is a conservative agenda on the editorial page. As other newspapers have cut back on editorials and endorsements, the Times is now often the only LA news outlet that issues endorsements on political candidates and on ballot measures and initiatives. This is particularly crucial in California, where even the most educated voter is left clueless and confused -- or worse, tricked -- after reading the state propositions put on the ballot by Californians who simply gathered enough signatures to push a private agenda.
In an age when the Internet is buzzing with far-left and far-right screamers blogging opinion as fact, it is invaluable to have trusted, vetted journalists research both sides of key public issues and then publish carefully considered opinions. This is especially true given the "he said, she said" nature of most news, leaving out discernment of truth from the lies that both he and she may have been peddling.
Great content is produced on independent news sites, and the Internet's influence on print media will only continue to grow. But let's be real. Other forms of journalism aren't ready to replace great newspapers.
UPDATE: LA City Councilman Bill Rosendahl introduced a motion Tuesday to pull city pension money from the investment firms that own the LA Times if they sell the publication to buyers who do not support "professional and objective journalism."
The motion was also signed by Councilman Dennis Zine and Councilman and LA mayoral candidate Eric Garcetti. It will get its first hearing in coming weeks before the council's Budget and Finance Committee.