New owner of the Baltimore Sun strains newsroom

A few years ago, desperate to avoid being acquired by a hedge fund, staffers at the Baltimore Sun made a public appeal for a local entrepreneur to buy their publication.

That request was recently fulfilled: Maryland businessman David D. Smith purchased the famous newspaper, returning the 186-year-old paper to local hands for the first time in nearly 40 years.

But Mr Smith may not be quite what The Sun’s journalists were hoping for. According to interviews with current and former employees of the newspaper, Mr. Smith’s purchase has already alarmed many inside and outside the newsroom, who fear that he will impose his political interests on the newspaper. organization as a final coda to a once-proud newspaper that faced a long decline.

Mr. Smith is executive chairman of the conservative Sinclair Broadcast Group, one of the nation’s largest local television station operators, with nearly 200 stations, including Fox45 in Baltimore. Sinclair has been a reliable ally of former President Donald J. Trump; Mr. Smith would have said Mr. Trump in 2016: “We are here to deliver your message. » In 2018, the company required that its stations movie promos echoing some of Mr. Trump’s attacks on the media.

Mr. Smith has regularly supported conservative causes. According to his tax records, his family foundation has donated more than $500,000 in recent years to Project Veritas, a right-wing group that has attempted to secretly record political opponents and journalists.

The Sun’s new owner did little to ease internal concerns during a three-hour meeting with staffers Tuesday. According to two people at the meeting, Mr. Smith told the newsroom that he had read the paper only a few times in recent months and had not read it at all in the last few months. 40 years ago, urged them to increase their profits and said he wanted the publication to emulate the local Sinclair station, Fox45. He also said at the meeting that he wanted the newspaper to cover corruption. (The Sun won a Pulitzer Prize in 2020 for do exactly that.)

“I think it will spell disaster,” John E. McIntyre, a Sun editor for 34 years, said of Mr. Smith’s property. Mr. McIntyre completed a buyout in 2021 and now freelances occasionally for new crosstown rival The Baltimore Banner.

“What I hope is that he does some good on what he said, turning the Baltimore Sun into the same thing as his Fox45 television station: a mouthpiece for right-wing disinformation and contempt for the city of Baltimore,” Mr. McIntyre said. added.

The Sun, Maryland’s largest newspaper, has struggled in recent years with declining advertising revenue and print circulation, with the same headwinds affecting nearly every newspaper. The paper once had around 500 journalists and numerous foreign bureaus. Today, The Sun and its sister papers employ around 150 people, including on the business side.

In 2021, Alden Global Capital, an investment firm with a strategy of buying local newspapers before cutting costs, purchased The Sun. Newspaper employees and other community members tried to stop Alden’s purchase. In February 2021, Stewart Bainum Jr., a Maryland hotel magnate and longtime Democrat, reached a deal to buy The Sun and two of its sister newspapers for $65 million, with the intention of managing them through through a non-profit organization.

But that deal fell through, and Mr. Bainum ended up creating the rival local news agency, The Baltimore Banner, which hired some of the Sun’s top reporters and nearly doubled its newsroom to 70 in less than two years, almost the same size as The Sun. The banner reported earlier this week regarding the staff meeting with Mr. Smith.

Mr. Smith bought The Sun and several other newspapers from Alden on January 12 with a partner, Armstrong Williams, a conservative commentator. The new owners said they used personal funds independent of Sinclair. The price of the deal was not disclosed, but Mr. Smith told the newsroom during the meeting that the deal was worth “nine figures,” or at least $100 million.

Guy Gilmore, chief operating officer of Alden’s MediaNews Group, said in a statement: “We are always open to discussions about local ownership and pleased that our preeminent technology and newspaper operations platform will continue to provide services at the Baltimore Sun. »

Mr. Smith declined to comment for this article through a representative. He told The Sun in a meeting On Monday, he said he bought the paper because “we have an absolute responsibility to serve the public interest” and that he believed the paper could be “extremely profitable.”

Mr. Williams, his business partner, said in a telephone interview Friday that employees had misinterpreted Mr. Smith’s comments at the staff meeting.

“What matters is what we do – that’s what we will be judged by – not what someone says in the first meeting, but what we do every day in this newsroom.” , said Mr. Williams.

He added: “Why would we spend a fortune to buy this and destroy it? That does not make sense. »

Mr. Williams owns a media company affiliated with Sinclair and has had a long career as a radio and television show host and columnist. In 2005, Mr. Williams admitted to receiving $240,000 from the George W. Bush administration to promote the government’s “No Child Left Behind” law in his columns and elsewhere.

Mr Williams said personal politics would “absolutely not” affect the Sun’s journalism and he wanted rigorous, fact-based reporting. “More than anything, we need balance in media coverage,” he said.

Trif Alatzas, the publisher and editor-in-chief of The Sun, would continue in those roles, Mr. Williams said.

The Baltimore Sun Guild, which represents the newspaper’s journalists, said in a statement declarations after the staff meeting: “The editorial focus he described – focused on clicks rather than journalistic value – concerned many of our members, as did his attitude toward vulnerable communities in the city we love. »

Sun reporters have not heard from or seen Mr. Smith since the meeting, said two employees who spoke on condition of anonymity. Nothing immediately changed in their day-to-day work, the people said.

The Sun continued to cover its new owner. An article published reported Wednesday that Mr. Smith contributed $100,000 to a PAC supporting Sheila Dixon, a Democrat and former Baltimore mayor who is challenging the city’s current mayor. Thursday, the newspaper published an article about Mr. Smith’s involvement in funding a petition to cut the Baltimore City Council in half.

Mr. Bainum said in an interview Friday that The Baltimore Banner has seen a surge in new subscriptions since announcing the sale of The Sun.

“We launched Banner 19 months ago to bring more high-quality journalism to Baltimore and Maryland,” he said. “If this sale of The Sun further achieves this objective, it will certainly provide a boost to the region. The more local information, the better.

Outside critics have been pessimistic about the new ownership of The Sun. Guardian media columnist Margaret Sullivan wrote: “We often hear people wish for greater local ownership because national chains of vulture capital have done so much damage. But as the Baltimore situation shows, local ownership can be just as harmful.”

David Simon, creator of the TV show “The Wire” and a former Sun reporter, said in a statement thread on the social media platform

Josh Tyrangiel, a media executive and filmmaker who serves on the board of directors of The Baltimore Banner, said of Mr. Smith in an interview: “He’s the Grim Reaper. And since he obviously doesn’t know anything about journalism, he’ll be a happy-go-lucky Grim Reaper.

“The Sun will experience a miserable and undignified death,” he added.