The Sun’s Sarah Gantz reported yesterday the city’s paper of record is leaving its downtown office and is on the verge of renovating space in its Port Covington printing plant to accommodate a state-of-the-art newsroom.
Publisher and editor-in-chief Trif Alatzas announced the plans in a memo to staff yesterday and wrote that details “are still being finalized.”
“By renovating the building, we will be able to have most of our employees under one roof,” he wrote. “A new formatted space will allow us to evolve into a next-generation news organization with a state-of-the-art newsroom, and it will provide flexible work stations to accommodate a more nimble sales structure.”
On social media, several employees expressed dismay over losing a space in the city’s core, within walking distance to governmental seats of power, courthouses and downtown businesses.
This move, from the heart of the city to an outlying (for now) industrial area, brought to you by the bloodsucking corporate vampires who moved our properties into a separate business, sold them, and made us add rent to our costs
— Justin Fenton (@justin_fenton) January 4, 2018
Not only that but there's poor public transportation options, and poor parking options near key places like City Hall, courthouse, police dept.
On the flip side we will be across the street from a whiskey distillery https://t.co/uMU41IliBn
— Justin Fenton (@justin_fenton) January 4, 2018
This move puts reporters and photographers farther away from City Hall, police HQ, courts, downtown. Not good.
On the plus side, my commute from Anne Arundel County to the newsroom will be at least 10 minutes shorter. https://t.co/s08afggGQx
— Pamela Wood (@pwoodreporter) January 4, 2018
Fenton’s first tweet refers to the 2013 split of Tribune Company into two separate entities, Tribune Media and Tribune Publishing Company, which was later rebranded with the oft-derided moniker tronc. In addition to helping Tribune avoid a huge tax bill, the move stocked the former company with lucrative entities such as 42 local television stations, websites and the real estate holdings of the newspapers themselves, and the latter took on much of the red ink.
Under that arrangement, the newspapers, which, like the rest of the industry, have struggled to recover from nearly two decades of declining print ad revenue, began owing rent to the other Tribune company.
Scott Dance, an environment, science, and weather reporter who serves as unit chair for The Sun‘s unit of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild, also pointed to that moment as a critical blow.
“The Guild believes staying downtown would have been in the best interest of The Sun and the city of Baltimore,” he told Baltimore Fishbowl. “It’s unfortunate that we have to make a move at all, because of an unfair decision to strip The Sun of its properties and add rent to its costs.”
The Sun building and a neighboring parking garage were listed for sale in March 2016 and sold a little more than a year later for more than $15 million, to local firm Atapco Properties. In August 2017, Atapco unveiled a plan to renovate the structure into a mixed-use development with a grocery store and a theater. At the time, Atapco said in a release that it had reached out to the newspaper about staying in the building, and in an interview with then-Sun reporter Carrie Wells, seemed open to the idea of incorporating The Sun‘s legacy in the design.
Reached last night by email to see if the newspaper’s announcement affected his plans, Atapco president Kevin McAndrews replied: “We have been aware for quite some time that The Sun was not going to stay at 501 N Calvert. We have not been planning to incorporate their logo.”
The Sun‘s lease on the building is up in June 2018.
In 2014, Tribune Media sold the printing plant to Sagamore Development for $46.5 million, part of the Kevin Plank-owned company’s corralling of South Baltimore land for what would eventually become the Port Covington. With hundreds of millions in tax-increment financing, Sagamore is now in the process of transforming the 260 acres into office, retail and living space that includes a new headquarters for Plank’s athletic apparel company Under Armour.
The paper currently leases the plant from Sagamore, but even its future is uncertain, as renderings of Port Covington do not show the building where it currently stands. An email sent to Sagamore Development asking for clarification about the future of the plant was not immediately returned.
In a statement released to The Sun, Sagamore Development president Marc Weller said: “We’re excited at the prospect of welcoming another tenant and continuing the ongoing progress at Port Covington. Having the Baltimore Sun, an iconic presence in Baltimore since the 1800s — and most of its employees — come to Port Covington speaks to the excitement around the development and its momentum.”
A spokesperson with The Sun did not return an email with additional questions about the paper’s long-term plans, details of the newsroom renovation and the departure from N. Calvert Street.
Two former Sun employees who spoke with Baltimore Fishbowl said a move to Port Covington would present logistical challenges, as well as a psychological one.
“[It] means that reporters will have to spend a lot more time in their cars,” said one. “They might be less likely to linger around the courthouse or City Hall, especially with the current regime’s preoccupation with people being at their desks.”
Said the other: “There is something to be said for feeling of the city, and being a part of the pulse of the city. And you don’t feel that way on the outskirts of it.”
But the placement of The Sun‘s newsroom is more than just convenience. Visible from I-83, standing tall next to the city jail and in close proximity to the dome of City Hall, the brick building feels like a “pillar of the city,” as the second source put it. That location is part of the paper’s ethos, even as it has endured cutbacks, which have left a sizable chunk of its square footage unoccupied, and questions about representation.
“I just think it’s always kind of battling this idea of whether or not, in philosophy or demographic, and all these different ways, it represents the voice of the city,” said the second source. “This move could make it harder. But I don’t think the commitment to doing that is going to waver.”
The first source raised questions about having The Sun‘s entire operation paying money to one of its wealthiest and most high-profile businessmen, Kevin Plank.
“I and other Sun alums already feel that The Sun covers Kevin Plank with a light touch,” the source said. “How are they supposed to cover the city’s biggest businessman objectively when they are reminded daily that he’s also their landlord?”
But the second source disputed that, saying The Sun didn’t sugarcoat its coverage of the entrepreneur and developer and that the newspaper’s stories are a big part of why activists and community members became so outraged over the public financing given to the project.
“You can put those reporters anywhere and they’re gonna do the damn thing,” the second source said. “They’re gonna do what they’ve always done.”
The staff reporters, the source went on to say, will “continue to punch above their weight as long as there’s still a newspaper.”
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