Three years ago, Charles and David Koch, the billionaire industrialists and supporters of libertarian causes, held a seminar of like-minded, wealthy political donors at the St. Regis Resort in Aspen, Colo. They laid out a three-pronged, 10-year strategy to shift the country toward a smaller government with less regulation and taxes.
The first two pieces of the strategy educating grass-roots activists and influencing politics were not surprising. But the third one was: media.
Other than financing a few fringe libertarian publications, the Kochs have mostly avoided media investments.
Now, Koch Industries, the sprawling private company of which Charles G. Koch serves as chairman and chief executive, is exploring a bid to buy the Tribune Co.'s eight newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Baltimore Sun, the Orlando Sentinel and the Hartford Courant.
By early May, Tribune Co. is expected to send financial data to serious suitors in what will be among the largest sales of newspapers by circulation in the country. Koch Industries is among those interested, said several people with direct knowledge of the sale who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Tribune emerged from bankruptcy Dec. 31.
The papers, valued at roughly $623 million, would be a financially diminutive deal for Koch Industries, the energy and manufacturing conglomerate based in Wichita, Kan., with annual revenue of about $115 billion.
Politically, however, the papers could serve as a broader platform for the Kochs' laissez-faire ideas. The Los Angeles Times is the fourth-largest paper in the country, and the Tribune is No. 9, and others are in battleground states, including two of the largest newspapers in Florida, the Orlando Sentinel and the Sun Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale.
A deal could include Hoy, the second-largest U.S. Spanish-language daily paper.
One person who attended the Aspen seminar who spoke on the condition of anonymity described the strategy as follows: "It was never 'How do we destroy the other side?' " "It was 'How do we make sure our voice is being heard?' "
A person who has attended other Koch Industries seminars said Charles and David Koch have never said they want to take over newspapers or other large media outlets, but they often say "they see the conservative voice as not being well represented."
At this early stage, the thinking inside the Tribune Co., said the people close to the deal, is that Koch Industries could prove the most appealing buyer. Others interested, including a group of wealthy Los Angeles residents led by the billionaire Eli Broad and Ronald W. Burkle, both prominent Democratic donors, and Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., would prefer to buy only the Los Angeles Times.
The Tribune Co. has signaled it prefers to sell all eight papers and their back-office operations as a bundle.
Koch Industries is one of the largest sponsors of libertarian causes including the financing of policy groups such as the Cato Institute in Washington and the formation of Americans for Prosperity, the political action group that helped galvanize tea party organizations and their causes. The company has said it has no direct link to the tea party movement.
One person who has previously advised Koch Industries said the Tribune Co. papers were considered an investment opportunity, and were viewed as entirely separate from Charles and David Koch's lifelong mission to shrink the size of government.
At least in politically liberal Los Angeles, a conservative paper could be tricky. David H. Koch, who lives in New York and serves as executive vice president of Koch Industries, has said he supports gay marriage and could align with many residents on some social issues.
Conservatives welcomed the idea of a handful of prominent papers spreading the ideas of economic "freedom" from taxes and regulation.
Seton Motley, president of Less Government, a group devoted to shrinking government, said the 2012 presidential election reinforced the view that conservatives needed a broader media presence. "A running joke among conservatives as we watched the GOP establishment spend $500 million on ineffectual TV ads is 'Why don't you just buy NBC?' " he said. "It's good the Kochs are talking about fighting fire with a little fire."