Baltimore Sun Buys Two Metro Area Papers

The Baltimore Sun has a potential new local owner, a 74-year-old businessman who lives in Takoma Park and wants to make the Sun the latest newspaper in the country to be operated as a non-profit organization.

Tribune Publishing, the Sun’s current owner, yesterday disclosed a tentative plan to sell Maryland’s largest newspaper to an entity headed by Stewart Bainum Jr., the chairman of Choice Hotels International in Rockville.

If the sale goes through, Bainum’s non-profit, The Sunlight for All Institute, also would become the owner of The Capital in Annapolis, The Carroll County Times, The Towson Times, The Aegis and other divisions of Baltimore Sun Media, including online affiliates. The Institute, whose name is a play on the Sun’s ‘Light for All’ motto, was registered last month as a tax-exempt corporation in Delaware, but its assets would be in Maryland. It would restore the Sun to Maryland ownership for the first time since 1986.

The proposed sale to Bainum was disclosed yesterday when Tribune Publishing announced a $630 million transaction in which Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund that already has a 31 percent stake in Tribune Publishing, would acquire full control of the company, which also owns The Chicago Tribune, The New York Daily News and other publications.

“Concurrent with the signing of the merger agreement,” the announcement said, “Alden has signed a non-binding term sheet to sell the Baltimore Sun to Sunlight for All Institute, a public charity formed by Stewart Bainum Jr.”

The Sun and its Maryland affiliates are the only Tribune publications not remaining after the merger of Tribune and Alden, according to the announcement. Terms of the sale to Bainum were not revealed.

The $630 million transaction is expected to close in the second quarter of 2021 if Tribune shareholders approve it. The sale of the Sun properties won’t occur if the entire transaction doesn’t go through. Once the transaction is complete, Tribune will become a privately-held company and its common stock will no longer be listed on any public market, the company said.

The sale to Bainum would help end a long period of uncertainty for The Sun, which has been the subject of sale rumors and other speculation for years. Founded in 1837, it was locally owned for most of its history by the A. S. Abell Company. Abell sold it in 1986 for $600 million to the Times Mirror Corp., ending local ownership. Tribune gained control of The Sun when it acquired Times Mirror in 2000.

Alden has a reputation for being a “destroyer of newspapers” and a “vulture capitalist,” after acquiring publications such as The Denver Post and then slashing staff and resources to wring out profits, even if the quality of journalism suffers. Staffers at the Sun, a unionized newspaper, had waged an effort to find a local buyer who would spare it from that fate.

Bainum is not part of another Maryland group that has explored buying the Sun, a contingent that included former Baltimore County executive Theodore Venetoulis. The Sun’s Christopher Dinsmore quoted Venetoulis as saying that he supports Bainum’s effort: “You couldn’t have a better person for the city and really the whole state to be doing this.”

Alden currently controls more than 200 newspapers. In addition to The Chicago Tribune and The New York Daily News, the transaction with Tribune Publishing would give it control of the Hartford Courant; Orlando Sentinel; South Florida Sun-Sentinel; The Morning Call in Allentown, Pa.; The Daily Press in Newport News, Va., and The Virginian-Pilot in Hampton Roads, Va.

The Philadelphia Inquirer is considered the largest U. S. newspaper organized under non-profit ownership. Another newspaper that has become a non-profit is the Salt Lake City Tribune in Utah. Other examples include The Marshall Project; Mother Jones magazine, the Texas Tribune and ProPublica.

Choice Hotels International stock is traded on the New York Stock Exchange, and its brands include Cambria Hotels; Comfort; Sleep Inn; Quality Inn; Clarion, Econo Lodge and Mainstay Suites.

Bainum was a member of Maryland’s House of Delegates from 1979 to 1982 and a member of the state Senate from 1983 to 1986. He also has led HCR Manor Care, Vitalink Pharmacy Services and Sunburst Hospitality. In 2018, he and his wife Sandy committed to The Giving Pledge, a campaign that encourages wealthy people to contribute most of their wealth to philanthropic causes.

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.