Are Big City Newspapers Inevitably Liberal Due to Market Forces?


No more spin!, says, uh, The Daily Kos. ||| No seriously, this ad, or one like it, reportedly ran in the L.A. Times itself.
No seriously, this ad, or one like it, reportedly ran in the L.A. Times itself.

Garance Franke-Ruta, a smart senior editor for The Atlantic, has an interesting piece about the recent news that Koch Industries is sniffing around the upcoming sale of the Tribune Company's eight newspapers. (David Koch, Charles's brother and frequent partner in business, politics, and philanthropy, is a trustee of the Reason Foundation, which publishes this website.)

Instead of focusing on the Kochs, who have become the left's favorite bogeymen-billionaires, Franke-Ruta concentrates on the underlying economics and politics of big-city newspapers:

There are several reasons regional newspapers are an awkward fit for anyone looking to counter-program what they see as liberal bias in the news media.

The main reason is that all major U.S. newspapers are based in cities. Cities in America are in the main run by Democrats, because they are populated, by and large, with Democrats, and very often also surrounded by Democratic suburbs. And because cities are run by Democrats, and populated by not only by Democrats but, very often, by liberal, minority, and immigrant Democrats, they tend to have laws on the books that at least formally signal a desire to serve the interests of these voting groups—their residents, let's call them.

Newspapers, which are businesses, are subject to the employment and other laws of the cities in which they are based. Because they are based in cities, and because cities are often at the forefront of progressive legislating, newspapers tend to work under employment laws and answer to regional communities that have distinctive views about what a just society looks like. Conservatives are right to call these views liberal, but it's just as important to recognize them as the product of representative democracy within defined urban spaces….Newspapers, like other businesses, have to follow the local laws—such as those protecting out gay employees—or risk getting sued. And, historically, they had to appeal to urban or urbanizing local residents if they wanted any subscribers.

It's a nifty theory, with the added benefit of containing plausible-sounding market elements. But is it true?

Well, let's take as a test the largest city in America you might describe as right-of-center: Houston. Fourth-biggest city, 12th-biggest daily, 7th city ranked on the largest-dailies list, politically mixed but a whole lotta conservatism headquartered and represented. Famously hostile to zoning, friendly to business. Are those politics reflected in the Houston Chronicle?

My exposure to the paper is very limited (and very positive, for what it's worth), but I don't recall any particularly conservate or libertarian point of view, or reputation thereof.

Like so many American dailies, including the Los Angeles Times (my former employer, and the plum property in the Tribune roster), the Chronicle was a strongly conservative newspaper as recently as the 1950s, before more a more progressive breed of journalist began gaining a foothold in the 1960s. Crucially, the transformation from right to left, from crassly political to high-mindedly "fair," went hand in hand with the paper benefiting from and engaging in newspaper consolidation. It was the classic deal between mostly liberal newsrooms and mostly conservative boardrooms: Close down the competition and use the profits to professionalize the news divisions, instilling a more liberal ethos even while embracing the advertising-friendly pose of objectivity. Then sit back and enjoy the 20 percent profit margins for four decades. 

Back to the Chronicle, though the controversial and self-interested Houston Endowment ran the place through the late 1980s—like the "Great Eye of Sauron," according to this Texas Observer account—it was also increasingly going up against in-house journalistic values that cared more (according to verbiage at the same link) about "women's rights, poverty, and the mistreatment and neglect of ethnic populations, immigrants and refugees."

The paper has belonged to the similarly evolved Hearst Corporation for going on three decades, euthanizing the last of the competition in 1995. I am happy to be corrected in the comments, but if the Houston Chronicle is even half as friendly to conservative and libertarian viewpoints as the residents in its coverage area, I will sing a Backstreet Boys song in a Yao Ming jersey.

Ask yourself this: Of all the one-newspaper cities in America, how many are served by a daily that's more conservative than its readership? Pretty hard to come up with one, right?* Now do the same exercises for newspapers that are more liberal than their cities, and see how quickly you run out of fingers and toes.

So if regional political rub-off doesn't adequately explain it, what else could be at play in the liberalization (so to speak) of newspapers? I think Franke-Ruta is on firmer ground here:

Because employment at these city-based newspapers is voluntary, they tend to attract reporters who want to live in cities. The New York Times, for example, gets the Iowans who want to leave Iowa and live in Manhattan or Brooklyn. It does not get as many job applicants who want to live in traditional rural communities, because it is not a rural-community-based employer. Newspapers hire people who can deal with working in cities—big, major, complicated, diverse, progressive cities—and who will obey the socially progressive laws of those cities at work, even if they live off in the 'burbs somewhere.


I'd take this a step further: Journalists from newspapers all over the country want to work for The New York Times, even if their byline never gets within 100 miles of Gotham. Regional newspapers everywhere pattern their writing, their subject matter, their mores, on the Paper of Record.

Well, here's the problem with that: The New York Times is the product of a unique—and uniquely competitive—market. It already assumes that high finance and laissez-faire economics are covered by The Wall Street Journal. Crime, local shenanigans, and gossip are adequately handled by the Post and the Snooze. Newsday owns the suburbs. The vast majority of American dailies who ape The New York Times do not live in cities where whole swaths of their readership are properly served by other outlets.

Journalists have turned the daily newspaper into the print version of the local NPR station: intellectual, fuzzily liberal, elitist. Potential readers who have more of a talk radio sensibility have to go elsewhere. Like, well, talk radio (which does just fine in many famously liberal cities). The universality of the NYT model at a time when afternoon and/or populist dailies were going extinct worked as a short-cut on the more evolutionary process Franke-Ruta describes. Yes, big cities are going more liberal (though higher-growth Sun Belt cities aren't necessarily liberal at all), but my hunch is that the newspapers got there first. 

Speaking of NPR, I was on it this morning, talking about…the rumored Koch interest in the Tribune Company! Listen here.

* Alert commenter Heroic Mulatto correctly points out that The Union-Leader of Manchester, New Hampshire famously fits the bill. I'll add other no-brainers as they arrive.