Tribune Publishing’s announcement this week that the company had tentatively agreed to sell the Baltimore Sun to a newly-founded nonprofit elicited cautious hope for staff members who had pushed for local ownership of the newspaper as part of their “Save Our Sun” campaign.
But it also raises questions.
Sun reporter Liz Bowie told Baltimore Fishbowl that she and her colleagues were thrilled when they received an email from Tribune Publishing CEO Terry Jimenez announcing the planned sale.
“It was really an exciting moment for our entire newsroom. People were so joyful and a little bit stunned and now see a future for themselves, both in journalism and at the Sun,” said Bowie, who is also co-chair of the local unit of the Washington-Baltimore Press Guild.
Capital Gazette reporter Danielle Ohl said she was eating a piece of tres leches cake at her kitchen island when her roommate and fellow Tribune reporter showed her the email announcement.
“It was a shock. It was just unbelievable, honestly” said Ohl, who is also the chair of the Chesapeake News Guild, the union that represents the Capital Gazette, the Carroll County Times and the Baltimore Sun Media Group’s community newspapers – which are also part of the sale.
But Ohl said it has been difficult to fully celebrate the news while knowing that Alden Capital is slated to buy the rest of Tribune Publishing as part of the $630 million deal.
Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo labeled Alden Capital the “grim reaper of American newspapers” after Alden cut staff and resources at its publications and drained their profits.
“I want to try to let myself be excited even though the deal isn’t inked and it’s not done,” Ohl said. “But even if it does get done, it’s going to be at the expense of my other colleagues and my other friends who have worked so hard for the same things that we have, and they’ve worked right alongside us.”
“We got the best possible news that we could ever get,” she added, “and they got the worst.”
In November 2019, Alden Global Capital bought a 32% stake in Tribune Publishing, becoming the largest shareholder and securing two seats on the company’s board.
Two months later, Tribune offered buyouts to employees who had worked at the company for eight years or more. At least 11 Baltimore Sun Media Group employees accepted buyouts in February 2020, and more followed suit in the following months.
Under Tribune and Alden, Ohl said staff have been shortchanged while company leaders have reaped the benefits.
She said it’s been evident that Tribune has been able to reap profits yearly. “But it’s not going to the papers or to the journalism,” she said. “It’s going to the shareholders and the executives and the C suite.”
In April 2020, the Washington-Baltimore News Guild, the NewsGuild-CWA and a committee of media leaders launched a campaign they called “Save Our Sun,” calling on Tribune to sell the Baltimore Sun to local ownership. The campaign garnered the support of readers, prominent officials and former Sun reporters.
In June 2020, other Tribune newspapers joined the calls for their parent company to sell to local ownership.
The Abell Foundation, the Goldseker Foundation and former Baltimore County Executive Ted Venetoulis by that point had already said they wanted to buy the Sun and turn it into a nonprofit.
That effort culminated this week when Tribune announced that, as part of the sale to Alden, The Sun and the related local publications were to be purchased by the Sunlight For All Institute, created by Stewart Bainum Jr., wealthy hotel company owner and former elected official from Montgomery County.
The nonprofit model comes with limitations, including IRS restrictions on funding. Layoffs and buyouts could also remain an issue, as has been the case at the Philadelphia Inquirer, which went through a similar transition, Nieman Lab reported.
Bowie and Ohl both acknowledged that being owned by a nonprofit will not solve every issue faced by the journalism industry, but it’s a start, they said.
“It’s not like the issues of the journalism industry will be fixed because of this,” Ohl said. “The print advertising revenue is still going to stay gone and that’s something to contend with. But man is it going to be hopefully a lot easier to do when you know the revenue that you’re generating is actually going back into the paper itself.”
“We don’t believe this is going to be easy,” Bowie said. “There are lots and lots of hurdles. There are lots of complications down the road to making sure we’re sustainable and we can grow. But this will be a really interesting new path.”
Ohl said it is still unclear what working under a nonprofit will look like exactly, but she is confident that she and her colleagues will fare better than they are currently.
“We would have ownership that was invested in the journalism and the work rather than in the shareholders. We would ourselves be valued and invested in,” she said.
Ohl said some of her colleagues who have been working for decades at the Capital Gazette or other publications have not seen a significant raise in that time. She hopes that changes, and that these newspapers will become a place where more journalists are able to build long-term careers.
“I am hopeful that this means that we can actually consider staying and building careers at these places, instead of treating them like a training ground for super young, 20-somethings and then having the staff turn over every two years,” she said.
If the Sunlight For All Institute purchases the Baltimore Sun and its affiliates, Bowie is hopeful that their success story could serve as a roadmap for other newspapers seeking local ownership.
“We hope that our efforts will lead to the to the replanting of other newspapers into local hands going forward, because we believe that there’s a crisis in in local news and that we need to find models that will work in many communities across the country,” she said.
The Sunlight For All Institute would be following in the footsteps of organizations like the nonprofit Lenfest Institute for Journalism, which took on ownership of the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2016 after the newspaper’s last owner, Gerry Lenfest, donated the paper to nonprofit ownership.
The Tampa Bay Times, owned by the nonprofit Poynter Institute, could also serve as a model for the Baltimore Sun’s potential new owner.
The announcement this week sparked celebration on social media by many Baltimore Sun Media Group employees.
Some Baltimoreans also voiced their support for the move, including Mayor Brandon Scott.
— Brandon M. Scott (@MayorBMScott) February 17, 2021
Despite celebration around the news of the Baltimore Sun’s potential nonprofit acquisition, some Baltimoreans questioned what the newspaper will look like under Bainum.
Real News Network reporter Jaisal Noor raised concerns about the need for the Baltimore Sun to implement policies to protect the newspaper’s editorial independence.
Look its great that The Sun will be controlled by a local nonprofit. But the funder’s ties with Hopkins and the scandal-ridden UM Medical Center raise the need for firewalls to protect editorial independence. https://t.co/MmBXpAOJuv
— Mick Lynch stan account (@jaisalnoor) February 17, 2021
Bainum is the chairman of the Choice Hotels International’s board of directors, on which his nephew also serves. Bainum took over the hotel company from his father, Stewart Bainum Sr.
From 1987 to 1998, Bainum served as chairman and CEO of Manor Care, which merged with Health Care and Retirement Corporation.
Bainum also served as a state delegate from 1979 to 1982, and a state senator from 1983 to 1986, and has been a major campaign donor for years.
After winning the Democratic nomination for Maryland’s 8th Congressional District in 1986, Bainum lost to Republican Connie Morella in the general election. He also considered a run for governor in 1994.
Bainum did not respond to Baltimore Fishbowl’s request for comment through Choice Hotels as of this article’s publication.
Ohl said she, too, has questions about Bainum and the Sunlight For All Institute.
“I think it’s important to continue to be skeptical even when we are at the center of the thing to be skeptical about,” she said.
But she said the newsrooms under the Sunlight For All Institute ownership will be able to cover the nonprofit’s leadership thoroughly and fairly, pointing to the Washington Post‘s coverage of Amazon after the tech company’s CEO Jeff Bezos bought the newspaper in 2013.
Bowie agreed that the Baltimore Sun and other newsrooms will be able to cover Bainum and any organizations he is a part of without sacrificing their editorial independence.
“I think there are always potential conflicts of interest,” she said. “We’ll navigate them the same way we do any potential conflicts of interest.”
Bowie said Bainum has not talked to staff at the Baltimore Sun and other publications about changes they want implemented.
“We do not expect to talk to Stewart Bainum before this deal is completed. It would be premature,” she said.
Jim Friedlich, executive director and CEO of The Lenfest Institute for Journalism, tweeted that Bainum is a “gracious, determined, & savvy business man.” Friedlich offered support from his organization as the Baltimore Sun and other papers potentially transition to nonprofit ownership.
Stewart Bainum is a gracious, determined, & savvy business man who has #Baltimore & #annapolis best interests at heart in acquiring @baltimoresun and @capitalgazette. He & his advisers have looked closely at the @lenfestinst news nonprofit & we stand ready to help. https://t.co/SVIFKmK9CW
— Jim Friedlich (@JimFriedlich) February 17, 2021
Former Sun arts and entertainment reporter Sameer Rao said the announcement is a “huge victory.” He also said that under nonprofit ownership the Sun will have no excuse not to hire more Black staff members to help better reflect Baltimore, a majority-Black city, and evaluate racist standards in reporting.
4) having been on the arts/features beat myself, I’ve seen the uphill slog and barriers to better covering the art this majority-Black city produces. I really hope The Sun fixes this by empowering arts reporters who can cover these worlds. I def wasn’t the best, but someone is
— sameer k rao (@AManCalledSrao) February 17, 2021