STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
In this country, the Tribune Company is looking to reshape itself. The company is emerging from bankruptcy, and is now considering the sale of all its newspapers. The Tribune Company takes its name from the Chicago Tribune, one of eight regional papers the company owns, also including the Los Angeles Times and Baltimore Sun. Possible buyers of those papers include David and Charles Koch, billionaire brothers from Kansas who've played a growing role in American politics. NPR's David Folkenflik reports.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: The Koch brothers' vast holdings include huge investments in energy, manufacturing, mining and commodities.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The mining interests are actually held separately by a third Koch brother.]
But they're known these days for their politics. Matt Welch is editor of Reason, a libertarian magazine. David Koch sits on its parent foundation, though Welch says he thinks they've never met.
MATT WELCH: Charles and David Koch have been for the last 40 years, 40-plus years, the most significant backers of libertarian-based organizations and philanthropies in the country. It's not even close. It is Charles and David Koch, you know, 100, everybody else two.
FOLKENFLIK: David Koch, the younger one at 72, ran for vice president on the libertarian ticket in 1980. More recently, the Koch brothers raised millions to elect Tea Party candidates and other Republicans and raised even more for ads opposing President Obama's re-election last year. As a result they have become a target of liberals.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW")
RACHEL MADDOW: You really can't get away from the Koch brothers. They're becoming way too ubiquitous. Their names pop up in every scummy political scandal, one after another.
FOLKENFLIK: That's MSNBC's Rachel Maddow. And whether one thinks she was being fair or not, the Koch brothers are dogged by their strong political identity. In a former life, Matt Welch was an assistant editorial pages editor at the Los Angeles Times - the largest paper in Tribune. He says good luck to the Kochs.
WELCH: It would be such a culture clash, inevitably, between them and the newsroom there that it would be kind of open conflict for a long time. I would have hard time imagining how they get out of that, how they calm that down in a productive way.
FOLKENFLIK: Two people with close ties to Tribune confirm the brothers' fancy has now turned to the company's newspapers - which can be obtained for far less money than they would have cost a decade ago. James O'Shea is a former top editor at both the LA Times and the Chicago Tribune.
JAMES O'SHEA: I think with the Koch brothers, people will probably look at it and say, well, OK. Here are people with a lot of money and maybe they'll actually invest in the place and maybe they'll have ideas about how we diversify our revenue base and get away from heavy, heavy, heavy reliance on advertising.
FOLKENFLIK: Yet O'Shea says he wonders whether the Kochs really view the papers as a financial investment.
O'SHEA: I don't think anybody's going to object too much if the Koch brothers buy the Chicago Tribune. It has a libertarian kind of right-wing editorial page.
FOLKENFLIK: The question is how the brothers would treat news coverage. They set up the site Kochfacts.com to take on press coverage they don't like. And several reporters told NPR they had felt the sting of coordinated campaigns to harass them. Take David Sassoon, the publisher of Inside Climate News - a small not-for-profit news outfit that just won a Pulitzer Prize.
A few years ago, it published a series of pieces on the possible winners and losers were the Keystone Pipeline XL to be built from Alberta, Canada to Nebraska.
DAVID SASSOON: We wrote a story saying they're positioned to be winners if the pipeline is built, because it will lead to higher prices for tar sands and a boom, in general, that will lift all boats.
FOLKENFLIK: The Kochs pressured the Reuters news agency to stop distributing the site's articles, though they identified no specific mistakes to correct. The brothers took out ads against Sassoon on Facebook and Google too.
SASSOON: They included my photograph in these ads. They used my name in these ads. And really came after us in a way that I have really never experienced before.
FOLKENFLIK: A spokeswoman for the Kochs, Missy Cohlmia, said they respect the independence of the Tribune papers, though she did not confirm the brothers' interest in buying them. Before 1960, the family that owned the LA Times propelled Richard Nixon and other Republicans to office. Reason Magazine's Matt Welch asks why shouldn't the Kochs?
WELCH: I mean the LA Times were the Republican kingmakers of California, and therefore at least of the country, for nearly a century. It's incredible, that history.
FOLKENFLIK: Tribune is to send out formal documents to potential buyers next month. David Folkenflik, NPR News.
INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.