By Kathleen Miles
Posted: 04/30/2013 7:03 am

At a Los Angeles Times in-house awards ceremony a week ago, columnist Steve Lopez addressed the elephant in the room.

Speaking to the entire staff, he said, “Raise your hand if you would quit if the paper was bought by Austin Beutner’s group.” No one raised their hands.

“Raise you hand if you would quit if the paper was bought by Rupert Murdoch.” A few people raised their hands.

Facing the elephant trunk-on, “Raise your hand if you would quit if the paper was bought by the Koch brothers.” About half the staff raised their hands.

Recent owner of the LA Times, Sam Zell, has been painted as the devil incarnate for slashing the editorial staff and for his vulgar demeanor.

But at least, editorially, he’s stayed out of the reporters’ business. There hasn’t been propaganda reporting, and there aren’t topics that are off-limits to the staff, according to a few Times reporters. The editorial page, definitely leaning left but not afraid, for example, to chastise unions, hasn’t changed much since Zell bought the Tribune Co., owner of the newspaper and eight others, in 2007.

That may not be the case under the paper’s future leadership, even if the group favored by the staff and readers takes over.

As Tribune Co. emerges from a four-year bankruptcy, the predominantly Democratic city is quivering at the rumor that libertarian billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch may be interested in buying the LA Times. The brothers are believed to be the only group prepared to buy all eight Tribune papers, including the Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun, Orlando Sentinel and Hartford Courant, as a package — how Tribune would like to sell them.

The ownership that most Angelenos seem to favor is a coalition of LA billionaires who have expressed interest, led by former Democratic mayoral candidate Austin Beutner and including prominent Democratic donor Eli Broad.

Many say local ownership is preferable because there’s more accountability and involvement. Local owners know and care about the city. Because they live here, they’re concerned and accessible. They won’t tarnish the paper, because they have local reputations to uphold. It would restore the family feel that the paper had for more than 60 years under the founding leadership of the Chandler family.

However, local ownership can have a dark side. Until the 1960s, the Chandlers used the Times to promote real estate development and Republican ideals. Similarly, when local real estate investor Doug Manchester bought the San Diego Union Tribune in 2011, he turned it into a platform for local business interests. To the dread of most Angelenos, Manchester has expressed interest in buying the LA Times, though he’s not considered a frontrunner.

Beutner and Broad have friends, political interests, and business and philanthropic investments across the city. And it’s hard to imagine that this wouldn’t influence the paper’s editorial content.

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