Thursday, May 9, 2013

When I was growing up... suburban Chicago, New Jersey and Minnesota, our family read the Chicago Tribune, the Newark Star-Ledger and the Minneapolis Tribune.

Now, by "read" I mean we had subscriptions to those papers, had them delivered to our driveway and then essentially fought over the sports page. Oh, sure, there was also the comics, the local news and the obits (the Irish sports page), but I don't recall anyone looking at the front section or -- God forbid! -- the op-ed page.

As I got a little older we got into the habit, somehow, of driving over to a special newsstand after Mass and buying the Sunday New York Times. I can't imagine what any of us were thinking (it had a terrible sports page); maybe we just wanted to think of ourselves as more literate or something. As for actually reading it, well, everyone knew it was controlled by Those People (and I don't mean the WASPs at the local country club) and was filled with crazy (and dangerous) liberal ideas. So I think we just plopped it down on the coffee table in the living room and sat around it much like the apes around the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, above. After a decent interval, we would all then retire to the family room for a full day of watching the NFL on TV.

A digression: I remember one fall afternoon in particular. When we were on our third, or so, NFL game my sister-in-law entered the room. Still getting used to our habit of watching football all day on Sundays, she asked innocently, "Whom are we rooting for?"

Since the game was inconsequential -- two teams probably battling to stay out of last place late in the season -- my father answered, "No one in particular."

"Then why are we watching it?"

"Because it's the only game on."

So why this big, long, boring history lesson on my family's newspaper-reading habits? I have a point to make.

Somewhere along the line a thing called the Internet was invented, or emerged, or somehow appeared before most people. And, lo and behold, readers were no longer limited to their local newspapers. They could read whatever they wanted. In fact, you can -- and probably do -- assemble your own "virtual" newspaper every day: national news from the New York Times or the Washington Post, business news from the Wall Street Journal and sports from your local paper. Or whatever combination you choose. Beautiful!

But local newspapers (which were never that great in the first place) began to lose out in this Brave New  World of journalism. Subscriptions were dropped, advertising revenues declined and venerable dailies like the Chicago Tribune were sold to real estate tycoons with bad beards.

So -- and I'm finally getting to the point of this piece now -- the Koch brothers are back in the news, this time for trying to buy eight newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune. Apparently, the billionaire brothers think the "media" has a liberal bias (which it does, by the way, thank God) and are out to change that. If they could just make some local papers more like the Wall Street Journal, their reasoning goes, they would be able to bend public opinion in a more libertarian direction.

Now while some progressives are up in arms about all this, I say: Go ahead and try.

First of all, the Kochs are about twenty years too late. (But don't anyone tell them!) Most of us get our news from the "Internet" -- remember that? -- and choose what we read anyway. Are you a liberal? Then there's plenty for you to read. Conservative? Ditto; just check out the Journal and Fox. Middle-of-the-road? Have at it. In fact, the Internet is essentially infinite: you could surf all day and not even scratch the surface. No one's waiting for the LA Times or the Trib to hit their doorstep to find out what's in the news today.

(And, by the way, is there really a market for more conservative news? Isn't that niche pretty much filled already by the likes of the Journal, Fox and Rush Limbaugh?)

So I really don't think this strategy of buying local papers is going to have much of an impact. (Liberals can exhale.) Nobody reads them anymore anyway. They get their news from reliably conservative or liberal outlets and check out the local papers for sports and weather (if that).

So go ahead, Koch brothers, blow a ton of cash on your latest Quixotic adventure. It'll be a colossal waste of time and money. Don't believe me? Just ask Sam Zell; he'll set you straight.

(Or not. After all, he's the guy who's trying to dump these bad investments on the "greater fool.")

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