Why Big Cities Make Media Liberal—and Why the Koch Brothers Can't Do Anything About It

Newspapers are the ultimate product of urban space.

Giovanni Boldini, Newspaperman,1878 (detail)

On Sunday, the New York Times reported that the Koch brothers -- yes, those Koch brothers, of dumping mad cash into elections fame -- are considering buying the Tribune network of newspapers in a bid to establish a pro-business conservative media chain.

I say, good luck with that.

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 (see Richard Florida for more on what it is that causes cities to vote Democratic). 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.

A typical version of the conservative complaint about the views of people who are part of the media comes from The Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin, who cut her teeth in conservative media before joining the Post as a conservative opinion blogger. She ignores the role of the city in creating and sustaining the contemporary newspaper:

There is no doubt there is a secular, urbanized (emphasis added), college-educated and socially liberal portion of the United States. Unfortunately for the rest of America, the media are almost entirely made up of such people, who by virtue of their employment and income status have limited contact with those on the other side of this cultural gap ....

In recent decades there has been a push for more racial, ethnic and gender diversity in newsrooms, but virtually no effort to incorporate geographic, cultural, political, social and religious diversity. That makes for newsrooms that are at the very least more likely to ignore or distort the views and lives of rural, religious, pro-life, non-college educated and conservative Americans. In age, beliefs, religion, educational level, income, military service and many other indices, journalists in major outlets are unrepresentative, enormously so, of the country at large ....

The more newsrooms reflect full intellectual, religious, geographic, economic and ideological diversity the less likely they will be to "miss" stories or get them wrong and the more likely they will insulate themselves from criticism of bias. Unfortunately, they never seem to get around to that.

I don't like to talk about "the media," because it's such a large category it's almost impossible to make generalizations about it. Talk radio, for example, is a very different beast from cable news, which is a different thing again from online media or newspapers. But because the Koch brothers are contemplating buying a chain of newspapers, I want to concentrate on that form of media here.

It's all very well and good to argue that newspapers lack regional diversity, as Rubin does, except this ignores the fundamental historic organizing principle of newspapers: geography.

American newspapers originated as physical objects designed to be distributed in defined, geographically constrained regions. They originated as urban creations because only in urban areas was there enough commerce, enough politics -- enough news -- for them to grow, and enough readers to make them strong. There are newspapers based in rural areas, but it is hard for them to grow large, both because of the lack of regional news, and because of the difficulty of getting the physical object of the paper to enough people to scale it. Newspapers have historically depended on high densities of people for their existence (see Discovering The News: A Social History Of American Newspapers, for a really wonderful and fun history of the form).

Newspapers have also, at least until rather recently, demanded that their writers know a region. Not before they got hired, but once they started to work in it. Papers may have hired from diverse regional backgrounds (and newspapers draw from a more geographically and educationally diverse population of reporters than Rubin thinks they do), but what they demanded of their workers is that they become regional specialists. That's what running people through the Metro Desk was designed to do. Until fairly recently, to report on national politics, you had to get to know the problems of the city or of dense close-in suburbs first. You had to take a crash course in the culture of the city and the region in which your newspaper was based.

Also important: 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.

There are successful conservative newspapers in cities, but they are usually the scrappy local underdogs to the big mainstream dailies bought by the plurality of the regional paper-buying population. Think: The Boston Herald (conservative) versus The Boston Globe. The New York Post (conservative) versus the New York Times and Daily News. The Washington Times (conservative) versus the Washington Post.

Actually, let's look at this last example more closely, because the Washington market is suffering one of the sharpest newspaper contractions in the country, and it is the printed papers whose conservatism spills over the opinion wall into the news pages that have been having the toughest time of it in this Obama-friendly region. The Washington Times laid off more than 40 percent of its newsroom in 2009, then another 20 people in 2013, and is on track to contract again through another round of layoffs. The Washington Examiner, founded in 2005 with big ambitions and a right-leaning editorial page, just announced it's ceasing near-daily printing and becoming a single weekly magazine plus a website, replacing its original model of a local-news-covering paper with a regional distribution with the only form of media that's even harder to sustain as a business, the weekly newsmagazine (think of the fates of Newsweek, or U.S. News & World Report) with national ambitions. Eighty-seven people were laid off, and the new publication is slated to focus on "national politics" and "hire at least 20 new people," according to a Huffington Post report, dropping its readership of Metro riders looking for crime news in favor of a new audience of "roughly 45,000 professionals in government, public affairs, advocacy and academia."

In short, it's giving up on being a newspaper and becoming an opinion and analysis magazine. It's moving from being a publication designed to serve a geographic community to one designed to serve an intellectual one, and, most likely, a community of interested conservative readers.

The Koch brothers could try to make the Los Angeles Times or the Baltimore Sun more appealing to a different intellectual community. But if they were to buy the papers and push their newsrooms in a more conservative direction, I suspect they would see an increase in the pace at which the geographic communities that once sustained the publications abandon them.