By: Joe Strupp
Why would a multibillionaire who owns a slew of businesses ? from fiber-optic communications to a professional hockey team ? want to launch a chain of free daily newspapers? For those who know Philip Anschutz, the Denver-based mogul who’s been described as both the nation’s “greediest executive” (by Fortune magazine) and “very, very generous” (by former Colorado Gov. Dick Lamm), the answer is simple: It’s good business.
But if you want Anschutz, who owns The Examiner in San Francisco and the recently launched Examiner in Washington, D.C., to tell you why, good luck. The 64-year-old businessman, whom Forbes rates as the 33rd richest in the country, has not given an interview in more than 30 years. The last was a 1974 sit-down with the Colorado Historical Society, one of his many philanthropic causes.
Since then, he has accumulated what Forbes estimates to be some $5.2 billion in assets and has kept a low profile. Anschutz “apparently wants to put out newspapers, but he apparently does not want to be in them,” says Michael Roberts, media columnist for the Denver alternative weekly Westword. All requests for interviews are routinely turned down, usually by Anschutz spokesman Jim Monaghan, who claims, “It isn’t his style,” adding, “We don’t even have a photograph of him to give out, and we don’t have a bio.”
So when Anschutz began delving into the free-newspaper market a year ago with the purchase of the San Francisco daily, curious observers were left to ponder his plan. Add to that the February launch of the Washington paper ? which was actually the transformation of the former Journal Newspaper chain of suburban D.C. dailies ? and it’s obvious Anschutz is not doing this as a hobby. Further speculation is fueled by the fact that he has trademarked the Examiner name in 67 other cities.
“We don’t have any pins on a map, but we are out seeking opportunities,” says Ryan McKibben, president and CEO of Clarity Media Group, the Anschutz company formed to run the newspapers. “I think our business plan is pretty transparent.” McKibben declines to elaborate on the group’s future.
McKibben’s brother, Scott, who is president and publisher of The Examiner in San Francisco, hinted that more papers would come but also would not say when or where: “My take is that we’ll do more [free newspapers] where we find opportunities.”
Anschutz’s holdings indicate a history of pursuing good business opportunities in a variety of areas. His largest assets are Qwest Communications, the fiber-optic giant; Regal Cinemas, a string of movie theaters; and Union Pacific railroads. He also counts among his financial interests the Los Angeles Kings hockey club, several Major League Soccer teams, a stake in the Los Angeles Lakers, portions of several entertainment production companies (he helped bankroll the Ray Charles biopic Ray), and various sports and entertainment venues in Denver and Los Angeles.
Born in Kansas in 1939, Anschutz graduated from the University of Kansas and went into business with his oil wildcatting father in the early 1960s. He quickly earned a reputation at a young age of showing up early for work and staying late as the father-and-son team made their mark in the 1960s with key oil strikes, and later in the 1970s when Anschutz expanded into natural gas.
“He is someone who takes advantage of underutilized assets,” says David Milstead, a finance writer for Denver’s Rocky Mountain News. “Picking out something that has a greater economical viability if it is used differently.” Milstead points to Anschutz’s decision years ago to lay fiber-optic cable along miles of right-of-way next to his railroad tracks for a venture that eventually became Qwest. His Regal Cinemas, meanwhile, often rents out its theaters during the day for business meetings.
The fact that both Examiner papers Anschutz bought have their own printing presses leads Milstead to believe he may be eyeing them for use in other printing ventures.
Still, Anschutz’s record of using his money and power to promote conservative and family values beliefs indicates he may be seeking an outlet in the press to further his opinions. In the past, he has donated money to pro-family groups such as Colorado for Family Values, which supported a controversial 1992 state ballot measure banning gay marriage; and Morality in Media, an anti-obscenity media watchdog group. He also funds the Foundation for a Better Life and the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation.
Anschutz has been a regular political contributor to Republicans, going as far back as 1980 when he gave more than $12,000 to various candidates and committees, including $1,000 to President George H.W. Bush’s unsuccessful election campaign. He also has donated to the campaigns of Ronald Reagan, Dick Cheney, Bob Dole, Alan Simpson, Al D’Amato, and John McCain, as well as more than a dozen House and Senate races.
Editorials in the Anschutz papers, meanwhile, have thus far indicated a conservative leaning. In recent weeks, the San Francisco Examiner has offered up editorials supporting the Iraq war and President Bush’s State of the Union address, while the Washington paper, in its first week of publication, supported Bush’s effort to change social security, backed legislation to force safety restrictions at abortion clinics, and warned against tightening campaign finance laws.
Editors at both papers contend that Anschutz has played no part in choosing their editorial positions. “His approach has been to leave me the hell alone,” says David Mastio, the Washington Examiner’s editorial page editor. But he added that Anschutz did “hire someone, in me, who is generally in agreement with him.” In San Francisco, Scott McKibben also says no editorial marching orders have come down from Anschutz. “He wanted to know how we handled the endorsement for president,” said McKibben, adding that the paper ended up endorsing neither George W. Bush nor John Kerry.
Mastio recalls his initial interview with Anschutz, a 90-minute session in January, during which he says the boss was “stone-faced and very intense. He seemed like he was trying to make me nervous, make me question myself,” Mastio says. “He asked a lot of questions like ‘Why do you want to do that?’ and ‘Why would that work?’ He was very probing.”
William Dean Singleton, vice chairman and CEO of MediaNews Group and publisher of The Denver Post, said he does not believe longtime friend Anschutz has any intention of using the newspapers as a bully pulpit. “He does have strong views, but I don’t think any of those would lead him into any business,” Singleton says. “I’ve asked him what kind of strategy he has [with the newspapers], but he hasn’t told me. I don’t think he knows yet.”