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Conservative Newspapers Don't Make Money

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Media Research Center chief Brent Bozell dedicated a recent column to complaining about criticism of "super-wealthy conservative bidders" for the Tribune Co. newspapers, particularly the Los Angeles Times:

The hilarious kickoff came when two leftist collectives -- the Daily Kos website and the California-based Courage Campaign Institute -- set out to buy an ad in the LA Times to protest the Koch brothers pondering a bid.

I kid you not, the ad began: "WE NEED NEWS, NOT MORE SPIN." This would assume that today's Los Angeles Times -- which just endorsed Obama's re-election -- is an oasis of objectivity in a desert of media bias. They were outraged when the Times used their owner's prerogative and refused to run the ad.

The Koch brothers are unqualified to own a newspaper, according to this ad. Why? Because they're conservative: "They bankroll the Tea Party. They deny global warming. They buy politicians and bust unions."

Actually, there's a better reason that conservatives shouldn't own newspapers that Bozell fails to touch upon: History shows that if conservative papers weren't subsidized by deep-pocketed owners, they would fail in a free market. By contrast, at least until the current paradigm shift from print to online, newspapers Bozell would dismiss as "liberal" had generally been thriving -- many of them under publicly owned companies.

Let's take a look at the top conservative newspapers in the country and how they're funded.

Exhibit A: The Washington Times

From its founding in 1982 by Rev. Sun Myung Moon, head of the cultish Unification Church, the Washington Times has never made a cent in profit. In the first 20 years of its existence, it's estimated that Moon sunk around $2 billion into the paper.

In 2010, when members of Moon's family cut the $35 million annual subsidy the paper received, the Times cut many employees, reduced coverage, shrank its circulation area and eliminated its Sunday edition to lower costs, and cut back on basic maintenance of its facilities.

Finally, Moon repurchased the paper from his son for a mere $1 -- the same amount that Bozell mocked Newsweek for being sold for. Bozell has remained silent about the Times selling for a buck. Insiders said at the time that the sale would "turn the spigot back on" -- that is, the annual subsidy that kept the Times afloat.

Exhibit B: New York Post

The Post has generally lost money under Rupert Murdoch's ownership -- reportedly $70 million in 2009 alone. Murdoch's other major U.S. newspaper property, the Wall Street Journal, has done even worse, losing at least $80 million in 2009. (That would seem to put the lie to Bozell's claim of "Murdoch's sober journalistic operation of The Wall Street Journal after he bought it.")

The Post's continued existence is largely due to other divisions of Murdoch's News Corp. being profitable. As some have noted, Murdoch keeps the Post alive mainly because it gives him an editorial voice in New York.

Exhibit C: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Richard Mellon Scaife -- the prolific funder of the anti-Clinton movement of the 1990s who currently shares with Christopher Ruddy ownership of Newsmax -- started the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in the early 1990s as an extension of a paper he owned in nearby Greenburg, Pa., while the main Pittsburgh papers were in the midst of a strike.

Legal papers obtained in 2007 by Scaife's rival, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, regarding a divorce battle over Scaife's $1.4 billion fortune revealed that the Tribune-Review had typically been losing between $20 million and $30 million a year, and that Scaife has subsidized the paper with at least $140 million since 1992. Scaife was arguing that his subsidies should be considered a business expense deducted from his income (and, thus, reduce any alimony payments to his ex); his ex's lawyers argued that the paper should be treated as a hobby.

Exhibit D: Washington Examiner

Conservative billionaire Philip Anschutz purchased a chain of suburban Washington newspapers in 2005 and turned them into the Washington Examiner, sharing a nameplate with the San Francisco Examiner, which Anschutz had also purchased. Operating the paper through his Clarity Media Group, Anschutz quickly loaded up the paper with right-wing writers -- he reportedly demanded that the paper contain "nothing but conservative columns and conservative op-ed writers" -- and a few years later, he purchased the conservative journal The Weekly Standard from -- wait for it -- Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.

Unsurprisingly, the Examiner contained the same kinds of misinformation found in other conservative publications. Editorial page editor Mark Tapscott declared in 2008 his intention to position the paper "to raise up a new generation of Right online reporters and editors who happen to publish on blogs and other sites devoted to doing what traditional print and broadcast outlets in the Mainstream Media have done for decades." In other words, the Examiner would put ideology before news.

Also unsurprisingly, that bias crept onto the news pages. Perhaps most notoriously, reporter Rowan Scarborough (who, as it so happens, was poached from the Washington Times) wrote a hatchet job on a newly appointed CIA official who had been at odds with another CIA official who was apparently a Scarborough favorite. Scarborough followed up a few days later with an article that was somewhat more balanced but still plenty biased. (Strangely, a month after these egregiously biased articles appeared, Scarborough abruptly "retired" from the Examiner despite having been there for less than a year, only to pop up back at the Washington Times a few months later.)

But the Examiner did not catch on with readers -- a typical edition contained more legal ads than display ads -- despite not only being given away but actually delivered to selected neighborhoods whether the residents wanted them or not. That prompted one suburban Washington city to attempt to ban unsolicited newspaper deliveries.

While Anschutz never made the paper's finances public, he could not have been making money on it given his business model and the overall state of the newspaper business in general (and conservative papers in particular). Eventually, even he felt the need to cut his losses. An attempt to establish an Examiner newspaper in Baltimore lasted only three years. In 2011, Clarity Media sold the San Francisco Examiner.

And last month, Clarity Media announced that the Washington Examiner would cease being a daily newspaper in June, laying off many employees -- namely, the reporters -- in the process of remaking itself into a weekly opinion magazine.

Exhibit E: Human Events

Even newspapers catering only to conservatives aren't selling. In February, Human Events -- a weekly newspaper publishing conservative-friendly items since 1944 -- announced it was ending its print edition, cutting jobs as it focuses on its online presence.

Human Events is owned by Eagle Publishing, which also operates book publisher Regnery and RedState.com, also conservative operations. Publisher Joe Guerriero said that Eagle has "willingly subsidized Human Events for quite some time now, choosing to do so to serve the cause of conservatism. But the realities of the 24-hour news cycle and the brutal economics of a weekly print publication have become insurmountable."

* * *

So conservative newspapers can't succeed against competition unless they're being heavily subsidized by their owners. What's a right-wing Charles Foster Kane wannabe to do?

Anschutz is pursuing one approach that the Koch brothers seem to want to emulate: buying established regional papers. In 2011, Anschutz purchased the Oklahoman, the top newspaper in Oklahoma, and last year he purchased the Colorado Springs Gazette.

Meanwhile, Bozell wasn't done whining. He went on to complain that "liberals want to hold on to these media properties like they're captive nations, and they're going to fight it using the same phony argument that the conservative media make propaganda, and liberals just produce 'news.'"

How about the not-so-phony argument that nobody wants to buy a newspaper run by a conservative billionaire? Or the fact that the most prominent conservative newspapers would fail in a truly free market? Bozell is silent about that.