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The Baltimore Sun’s new owner has newsroom on edge

A detailed view of the Baltimore Orioles scoreboard featuring The Baltimore Sun newspaper logo is seen as the Chicago White Sox play against the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on August 23, 2022, in Baltimore, Md.  (Patrick Smith)
By Katie Robertson New York Times

A few years ago, desperate to avoid being acquired by a hedge fund, staff members of the Baltimore Sun made public pleas for a local entrepreneur to buy their publication.

That request was recently realized: A Maryland businessperson, David Smith, bought the storied newspaper, returning the 186-year-old publication to local hands for the first time in nearly 40 years.

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

Smith is executive chair of the conservative Sinclair Broadcast Group, one of the country’s largest local television station operators with nearly 200 stations, including Fox45 in Baltimore.

Sinclair has been a reliable ally for former President Donald Trump; Smith reportedly told Trump in 2016, “We are here to deliver your message.” In 2018, the company required its stations to film promos echoing some of Trump’s attacks on the news media.

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

The Sun’s new owner did little to assuage the internal concerns during a three-hour meeting with staff members Tuesday. According to two people in the meeting, Smith told the newsroom that he had read the paper only a few times in recent months and hadn’t read it at all in the previous 40 years; urged them to increase profits; and said he wanted the publication to emulate the local Sinclair station, Fox45. He also said at the meeting that he wanted the paper to cover corruption. (The Sun won a Pulitzer Prize in 2020 for doing just that.)

“I think it will mean disaster,” John McIntyre, an editor at the Sun for 34 years, said of Smith’s ownership. McIntyre took a buyout in 2021 and now does occasional freelance work for the new crosstown rival, the Baltimore Banner.

“What I expect is that he will make good on what he said, to turn the Baltimore Sun into the same thing that his Fox45 TV station is: a megaphone for right-wing disinformation and contempt for the city of Baltimore,” McIntyre said.

The Sun, the largest paper in Maryland, has struggled in recent years with declining advertising revenues and print circulation, the same headwinds affecting nearly all newspapers. The paper once had about 500 journalists and numerous foreign bureaus. Now, the Sun and its sister newspapers employ about 150 people, including those on the business side.

In 2021, Alden Global Capital, an investment firm that has a playbook of buying local newspapers before slashing costs, bought the Sun. The paper’s employees and others in the community tried to ward off Alden’s purchase. In February 2021, Stewart Bainum Jr., a Maryland hotel magnate and a lifelong Democrat, reached a deal to buy the Sun and two of its sister papers for $65 million, with a plan to run them through a nonprofit organization.

But that deal fell apart, and Bainum ended up starting the local rival news organization, the Banner, which hired some of the Sun’s best reporters and has almost doubled its newsroom to 70 in less than two years, almost the same size as the Sun. The Banner reported this past week about the staff meeting with Smith.

Smith purchased the Sun and several other newspapers from Alden on Jan. 12 with a partner, Armstrong Williams, a conservative commentator.

The new owners said they had used personal funds independent of Sinclair. The price of the deal was not disclosed, but Smith told the newsroom in the meeting that the deal was in the “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 newspaper operating and technology platform will continue to provide services for the Baltimore Sun.”

Smith declined to comment for this article through a representative. He told the Sun in an interview Monday that he had purchased the paper because “we have an absolute responsibility to serve the public interest” and that he thought the paper could be “hugely profitable.”

Williams said in a phone interview Friday that employees had misinterpreted Smith’s comments in the staff meeting.

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

He added: “Why would we spend a fortune to buy this to destroy it? That doesn’t make sense.”

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

Williams said that personal politics would “absolutely not” affect the Sun’s journalism and that he wanted rigorous and factual reporting. “More than anything, we need balance in news coverage,” he said.

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

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

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

The Sun has continued to cover its new owner. An article published Wednesday reported that Smith contributed $100,000 to a political action committee supporting Sheila Dixon, a Democrat and former mayor of Baltimore who is challenging the city’s current mayor. On Thursday, the paper published an article on Smith’s involvement in financing a ballot question petition asking for Baltimore’s City Council to be halved.

Bainum said in an interview Friday that the Banner had seen a big increase in new subscriptions since the announcement of the Sun’s sale.

“We launched the Banner 19 months ago to bring more high-quality journalism to Baltimore and Maryland,” he said. “If this sale of the Sun achieves even more of that, it’s going to be a boost to the region for sure. The more local news, the better.”

Outside critics have been pessimistic about the Sun’s new ownership.

The Guardian’s media columnist, Margaret Sullivan, wrote: “One often hears the wish for more local ownership because national vulture-capital chains have done so much damage. But as Baltimore’s situation shows, local ownership can be just as bad.”

David Simon, creator of the TV show “The Wire” and a former Sun reporter, said in a thread on the social media platform X, formerly Twitter, that Smith “delivered a news product that begins with a hard ideological premise and then tailors all coverage and editorializing to fit.”

Josh Tyrangiel, a media executive and filmmaker who is on the board of the Banner, said of Smith in an interview: “He’s the Grim Reaper. And because he clearly knows nothing about journalism, he’ll be a careless Grim Reaper.

“The Sun is in for a miserable, undignified death,” he added.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.