Journalists at newspapers across the United States were despondent Tuesday when they learned that their parent company would be sold to a hedge fund notorious for gutting newsrooms.
But at their sister paper, The Baltimore Sun, people were celebrating an apparent reprieve. The Sun was not bound for the hedge-fund chopping block like several other papers owned by Tribune Publishing. Instead, a Maryland business executive and philanthropist plans to buy Baltimore’s nearly 184-year-old newspaper and preserve it as a nonprofit.
If the deal is completed — there is still due diligence ahead that could spike it — The Sun would revert from the Chicago-based Tribune to local ownership under the Sunlight for All Institute — an entity formed by the prospective purchaser, Stewart Bainum Jr.
Tribune will sell the Sun to Bainum’s organization for $65 million, according to Tribune’s filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The price includes the Tribune-owned Capital Gazette of Annapolis and Carroll County Times of Maryland.
In Bainum’s case, “local” ownership is a bit of a stretch. The 74-year-old executive lives in the Washington suburb of Takoma Park, Md., and represented the immediate area during a career as a Democratic lawmaker in Annapolis in the 1970s and ’80s. The first business he successfully managed, the ManorCare nursing-home chain founded by his father, was based nearby, as is the one he still chairs, the giant Choice Hotels franchising company.
But Bainum also has ties to Charm City, having served on boards governing Johns Hopkins’s sprawling operations in Baltimore and the city’s symphony orchestra.
“I think he’s attracted by the challenges of the news business and the need for a great city to have a great newspaper,” said Ted Venetoulis, a former Baltimore County executive, media entrepreneur and Bainum adviser who has advocated for local ownership of The Sun for years. “His goal is to strengthen The Sun.”
He laughed: “It certainly isn’t to make money.”
Bainum has his work cut out for him. Regional newspapers like the Sun have been declining for the past two decades, battered by the epochal shift from print to digital publication and abandoned by advertisers and readers — trends that have accelerated during the pandemic.
The Sun is still profitable, according to insiders, though its earnings are largely a result of years of cost-cutting, including several rounds of newsroom layoffs, rather than real growth. Tribune Publishing has not disclosed the financial performance of each of its newspapers.
Venetoulis said Bainum expressed interest in buying the newspaper about three or four months ago; not long after, the hedge fund Alden Global Capital proposed its buyout of Tribune, opening the way for negotiations over The Sun. His nonprofit will also take over the Capital Gazette and the Carroll County Times if the deal goes through.
Bainum was not available to comment; he is subject to a nondisclosure agreement while the deal with Tribune marches to completion.
It’s unclear how much capital Bainum can muster to revive The Sun’s operations. He is believed to have deep pockets — Poynter Institute business analyst Rick Edmonds calls him “seriously rich” — but not the mega-wealth of the billionaires who bought The Boston Globe, The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times in succession since 2013.
Bringing The Sun under nonprofit status means Bainum can receive financial help by way of tax-deductible donations, which is not an option for corporate-run newspapers.
Several metropolitan newspapers, including The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Salt Lake Tribune, have turned to nonprofit business models since the industry went into free fall. Other news organizations, such as The Texas Tribune, ProPublica and NPR, were founded as nonprofits.
“Where other people look at The Baltimore Sun and the city of Baltimore and see challenges, Stewart sees opportunities,” said Tim Maloney, a longtime friend of Bainum who served in the Maryland legislature with him. “Stewart Bainum isn’t Jeff Bezos,” The Post’s owner and founder of Amazon, “but they have similar instincts and similar objectives. They both want to make these papers great.”
But the nonprofit model is not a cure-all. Last October, The Salt Lake Tribune’s board of directors announced that the paper would cease printing a daily edition to focus on its website, the same cost-cutting move many corporate-owned newsrooms have resorted to.
Edmonds, the Poynter analyst, says the Sun still has a strong newsroom (it won a Pulitzer Prize last year for breaking a corruption scandal involving Baltimore’s mayor) and can grow under Bainum. “Hire the right team, get the locals revved up and he can provide financial ‘runway,’ as Bezos likes to say, for good things to happen,” he said.
The big advantage of a nonprofit structure, he said, is that it sends a message of public service. It also allows an organization to take public donations and foundation grants. Edmonds notes that the deal has the support of two large Baltimore-based foundations, Goldseker and Abell (the latter founded by the family of The Sun’s former owner), which is “a very good place to be.”
The downside: Nonprofits cannot do formal election endorsements, although newspapers’ influence over candidates and elections has faded over the years.
In the meantime, Bainum looks like a savior to The Sun’s journalists, who exchanged celebratory texts and emails when the news of the Tribune sale broke Tuesday.
The joy was just as much about the possibility of nonprofit, local ownership as it was a reflection of relief that The Sun had not fallen into Alden Capital’s growing portfolio of newspapers. Alden, which avoids press scrutiny while profiting from journalism, is notorious within the news industry for slashing the operations of the publications it acquires to boost their profitability.
“Nonprofit ownership may not be the perfect solution, but it’s a way better solution than partial or full Alden ownership,” tweeted Sun statehouse reporter Pamela Wood.
“We’re stoked about this possible victory, but to be clear — the work doesn’t stop now,” reads a statement released by the newsroom union, which was involved in the “Save Our Sun” campaign, a public effort to return the newspaper to local ownership and run it as a nonprofit.
Health reporter Meredith Cohn was in the middle of an interview about a coronavirus vaccine when she saw the email announcing the deal. “I continued with the interview, but I was sort of bursting inside,” said Cohn, who has been at The Sun since 2000 and has seen the newsroom shrink. “It’s been this steady decline over all this time, and this is the first time I see the potential for a new owner where the outcome is good for us, for our readers and the community.”
“Everyone in the newsroom I’ve spoken with is really overjoyed, even if we’re a little cautiously optimistic,” said Liz Bowie, The Sun’s longtime education reporter. “We don’t want to say it’s done until it’s done. We’re not naive to think that a business deal can’t blow up.”
Even though a nonprofit model for local journalism includes uncertainties, Bowie viewed it as an exciting new chapter. “We’re entering into a kind of experiment and we’ll have to understand that there will be a lot of change, and trial and error,” she said. “I hope part of the legacy of the Stewart Bainum’s purchase of The Sun is it provides other local newspapers across the country a model for how to go forward.”
Bowie said Tribune newspapers have endured more than a decade of uncertainty, including takeover attempts and a protracted period under bankruptcy-court protection starting in 2008.
“The idea that there will be a nonprofit entity that is dedicated to making sure The Sun survives for two more centuries and making it a good newspaper is just very reassuring,” Bowie said.