Glance at the celebrity gossip in People or the swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated, and it’s not likely the billionaire Koch brothers come to mind.
But the two conservative moguls could put their stamp on the two marquee publications and, more significantly, wield control over the newsweekly Time if a reported takeover bid comes to fruition.
Meredith Corp., which publishes Family Circle and Better Homes and Gardens among other titles, recently approached Time Inc. about a deal, armed with more than $500 million in financing from Charles and David Koch, according to reports Thursday.
The news sent speculation racing through political and media circles.
The brothers have spent millions of dollars promoting their assertive brand of low-tax, small-government conservatism, and the purchase could afford them an enormous new megaphone alongside — if not necessarily on a par with — the Rupert Murdoch-run Wall Street Journal and Fox TV network.
It was not clear, however, whether the Koch brothers would try to put their political imprimatur on Time or other Meredith magazines.
“There are many different models,” said Bill Kristol, editor at large for the Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine Murdoch once owned. “Are we talking about a Koch version of Breitbart” — the right-wing advocacy website — “or would they run Time the way Bezos runs the Washington Post?”
Although Jeff Bezos is founder and chief executive of Amazon, the online shopping Goliath, “the Washington Post is not a showcase for Amazon,” Kristol noted.
The Kochs — whose family fortune is valued at $82 billion, according to Forbes — are famously publicity shy, and a spokesman Thursday offered no comment. Officials at Meredith and Time also offered no public statements about the prospective transaction.
But that hardly slowed the questions surrounding a potential Koch takeover — though in a fragmented media environment the days are long gone when someone like Henry Luce, founder of the Time-Life empire, could lord over the nation’s political and cultural conversation like a deity on high.
“Is it possible the Koch brothers could turn it into a ‘Fox Magazine’? The answer is yes, and certainly the possibility is a disturbing one,” said Marvin Kalb, a longtime network television correspondent and now a media expert with the Brookings Institution and Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
“If the ownership of the Wall Street Journal and Fox give you any direction, it’s that, yes, you can buy a newspaper, you can buy a magazine, you can buy a network and slowly but surely turn it in your political direction,” Kalb said.
But, he added, that is not a certainty in the case of the Koch — pronounced like Coke — brothers. “There are many rich people who own good parts of the New York Times and do not agree with anything The Times writes editorially, or what they’re focusing their reporters on.”
“If the Koch brothers do this not as a political investment but as a powerful vote on American journalism, as far as I’m concerned they’re doing a service,” Kalb said. “But when it’s using the instrument of the free press to achieve a particular point of view, that may run into very serious trouble and may do a lot of terrible damage to the political system.”
It’s not new that wealthy individuals often want to own high-profile media properties. Apart from Bezos, another billionaire, John Henry, bought the Boston Globe. The Koch brothers earlier explored buying the Los Angeles Times and other Tribune Co. newspapers in 2013 before losing interest.
Meredith, a Des Moines-based company, and New York-based Time have held several rounds of merger talks in recent years to no avail.
Like all traditional print publications, Meredith and Time are grappling with ravages of the digital age, working to replace their shrinking print advertising and circulation with ad revenue from online subscriptions, videos, e-commerce and other digital endeavors.
In the first nine months of this year, Time Inc.’s revenue fell 9% from a year earlier, to $2 billion, led by a 19% drop in print advertising.
That struggle has taken its toll on Time’s market value. Its stock had dropped by more than half in the last three years before the latest merger speculation surfaced this week. That made Time, whose well-known titles also include Fortune and Entertainment Weekly, a better bargain for Meredith or any would-be acquirer.
In response to the merger reports, Time's stock soared 28% to $16.20 a share Thursday and Meredith’s stock jumped 10.5% to $59.95 a share.
William Adams, a professor of public policy and longtime student of the media at George Washington University, said if the Koch brothers purchased Time Inc. they would be wise to leave the newsweekly well enough alone, for both business reasons and to have the political and social impact they might seek.
“Unless it’s done properly, they could destroy the reputation of Time magazine,” Adams said, nullifying the conservative agenda they might wish to promote. “Frankly, I think they could have more potential for influencing the culture with something like People magazine,” perhaps by putting conservative-leading celebrities on the cover or featuring them in flattering articles.
“What conservatives, and particularly conservative businessmen, don’t understand is how much politics is downstream from culture,” Adams said. “They think they can throw money at elections and change things. But the culture is ultimately what drives everything else.”