Why do the Koch brothers want Time Inc.’s magazine empire?

The conservative billionaire brothers have long dreamed of a media empire — but this one looks dead in the water

Published November 21, 2017 4:58AM (EST)

Charles Koch; David Koch (CBS/AP/Photo montage by Salon)
Charles Koch; David Koch (CBS/AP/Photo montage by Salon)

No deal has officially been announced, but the buzz in media industry circles is that David and Charles Koch, the billionaire brothers known for their free-spending political ways, have agreed to finance a purchase of Time Inc., the venerable magazine publisher that has had trouble competing in the internet age.

According to multiple published reports, the brothers have agreed to provide $600 million in financing to Meredith Corporation, a publishing and television company that owns 15 local broadcast television stations as well as well-known lifestyle magazines like Better Homes and Gardens, Family Circle, EatingWell and Shape. A formal announcement is said to be forthcoming by Nov. 28.

Meredith has been trying to acquire Time’s entertainment and personal magazines since 2013, but Time has so far declined to sell them independently of its news-oriented brands of Fortune, Time magazine and Sports Illustrated.

The Koch-Meredith partnership is the second time that the Kansas- and New York-based brothers have contemplated a large media investment. In 2013, they were among several potential investors who considered purchasing several large newspapers that were then owned by Tribune Media, including the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune. The Kochs lost interest, as did other possible suitors, and eventually Tribune spun off its newspapers into a separate company, later purchased by investor Michael Ferro.

At the time, Koch Industries, the brothers’ primary corporate vehicle, said it did not believe a Tribune purchase would make good business sense. Nonetheless, the company stated that it was still open to other investments.

"Koch continues to have an interest in the media business, and we're exploring a broad range of opportunities where we think we can add value," the company said in a news release.

Teaming up with Meredith is a natural fit for Koch, since Meredith’s publishing brands have been perceived as less liberal than some other magazine publishers in recent years. According to statistics provided by the company, Meredith’s readership skews older and more affluent than average and readers are more likely to own a home, all characteristics of Republican voters. Meredith also has a marketing division that was an outgrowth of New Media Strategies, a media consulting firm started by a Republican operative named Pete Snyder. The company, Meredith Xcelerated Marketing Corporation, has done work for a number of political and media clients of various ideological stripes, including those funded by the Kochs as well as Fox News Channel.

Neither Koch Equity Development, the brothers’ investment arm, nor Meredith has publicly commented on their discussions or intentions. But some Time employees are reportedly concerned about the potential political ramifications of a Meredith-Koch acquisition.

“Knowing the Kochs, I think they’d have to see it as a business that could at the same time further their political interests,” Stanley S. Hubbard, a longtime Koch friend who also owns several local news stations across the country, told the New York Times.

“They probably see Time magazine as a left-wing rag,” he added. “I’m sure that they would like to see it be more objective and also to straighten it out to make it a profitable venture.”

In 2013, the possibility that the Kochs might purchase the Tribune newspapers provoked protest marches in Los Angeles, Chicago and Baltimore against some of the anti-union and fossil fuel-oriented policies that have been funded by the brothers over the years.

Were Time magazine to be turned to a more conservative direction than its current vaguely liberal incarnation, it would be a back-to-the-future turn for the publication. From its founding in 1923, Time was a Republican-oriented magazine. Its principal founder, Henry Luce, was among several conservative-leaning entrepreneurs who founded or operated a number of large media companies, including NBC, CBS, ABC, Tribune Publishing, the Gannett newspaper chain and a number of Hollywood studios. But while moderate and conservative Republicans essentially created mass media, as the GOP increasingly became dominated by anti-government radicals and their Christian supremacist allies, Time and much of the media at large began drifting away from them.

There is no evidence that a significant, underserved market exists for the quasi-libertarian, minimal-government views that the Kochs have promoted during their decades of spending on American politics. But it is also not entirely clear whether, if the brothers somehow become big media owners, they would want to force their ideological views on their properties. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, is also believed to be a libertarian but has made little effort to rein in the hawkish neoliberalism, or the forceful opposition to President Trump, that has predominated at the Washington Post since he acquired the paper in 2013. Likewise, liberal Democrat Warren Buffett has not stopped his Richmond Times-Dispatch newspaper and others from endorsing Republican candidates for office.

While the Koch brothers reportedly despise Trump and his racially and religiously tinged conservatism, they seem to have reconciled with their fellow billionaire in support of the GOP’s budget-busting tax-cut proposal.

A comprehensive report released by Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center demonstrated conclusively that there is an untapped market for moderate-to-conservative media, a niche that has almost entirely been abandoned in recent years. Whatever the Kochs and Meredith have in mind for Time Inc.'s publications, there’s no indication that they are interested in inhabiting that space.

By Matthew Sheffield

Matthew Sheffield is a national correspondent for The Young Turks. He is also the host of the podcast "Theory of Change." You can follow him on Twitter.

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