In a tense, three-hour meeting with staff Tuesday afternoon, new Baltimore Sun owner David Smith told employees he has only read the paper four times in the past few months, insulted the quality of their journalism and encouraged them to emulate a TV station owned by his broadcasting company.
Smith, whose acquisition of the paper from the investment firm Alden Global Capital was announced publicly Monday evening, told staff he had not read newspapers for decades, according to several people who attended the meeting but were not authorized to speak publicly.
While the terms of The Sun sale are private, Smith told staff he paid “nine figures” — meaning at least $100 million — for the paper, along with several community publications, including the Capital Gazette in Annapolis.
That price would be a significant premium at a time when local newspapers are struggling to make a profit because of declining print advertising and circulation. In 2021, Maryland businessman Stewart Bainum had entered a nonbinding agreement to purchase The Sun for $65 million. That deal fell through and Bainum went on to launch The Baltimore Banner as a nonprofit.
Smith, who is the executive chairman of Sinclair Inc., which operates more than 200 television stations nationwide, told New York Magazine in 2018 he considered print media “so left-wing as to be meaningless dribble.” Asked Tuesday during the meeting whether he stood by those comments now that he owns one of the most storied titles in American journalism, Smith said yes. Asked if he felt that way about the contents of his newspaper, Smith said “in many ways, yes,” according to people at the meeting.
The Baltimore Sun won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for local reporting.
Smith is a major political player in the region, having donated heavily to campaigns. He recruited candidates to run against Mayor Brandon Scott and funded ballot initiatives that altered the city charter.
The in-person meeting ran nearly three hours and was full of tense exchanges, people at the meeting said. Smith was noncommittal about both the long-term continuation of a print edition and retention of current staff.
Smith seemed to try and pit reporters against each other, asking them to rank who was the best in the newsroom. Several times throughout the meeting, he said he has “no idea what you do.”
Asked about people’s job security, Smith said everyone “has a job today” and said he would not make wholesale changes until he better understood the operation.
One newsroom member characterized the meeting as “bleak.” Another called it “very bad,” and another said it left them feeling sick.
Neither Smith or Sun Publisher and Executive Editor Trif Alatzas returned a request for comment Tuesday afternoon.
In a statement Wednesday, the Baltimore Sun Guild said the “editorial direction” Smith described concerned many of its members. The guild said its members were committed to continuing their work and asked for continued support.
Smith repeatedly talked about increasing profits — at one point telling reporters to “go make me some money” — and said reporters need to do a better job giving the public what they want.
Smith’s company owns the local station Fox45, and he praised its Project Baltimore, which focuses on the shortcomings of Baltimore City schools, as an example Sun reporters should follow.
“If you knew the corruption and the designed failure of what goes on in the Baltimore City school system, you would shoot somebody. Unfortunately you can’t do that,” Smith said.
Reporters repeatedly pressed Smith for answers about whether they would continue public service journalism that didn’t necessarily translate to page views or subscriptions. Smith maintained he was focused on money.
Clad in a suit, Smith spoke glowingly of Fox45, which is known for segments like “City in Crisis.” The news station, Sinclair’s flagship, regularly conducts unscientific online polls — with results that are likely not representative of the region — to gauge viewer interest.
Smith told Sun employees they were “in the poll business” now, and that they could expect to conduct polls every day. He said they would ask readers on the front page of the newspaper to go online and participate in the polling.
At Sinclair stations, Smith “insists on certain content and editorials and opinions be broadcast in every market,” said Tom Rosenstiel, the former executive director of the American Press Institute. Sinclair gained some notoriety when it required all its TV stations to air a message about “fake news” and dangers to democracy.
Rosenstiel, who teaches at the University of Maryland, said local ownership is not always good.
“What matters is the values and the intention of the owner, not where they live,” he said.
The Sun said in a story announcing the purchase that Smith intends to invest in the paper, increasing coverage of local communities and encouraging investigative work.
Smith purchased The Sun with Armstrong Williams, a conservative commentator who hosts a nationally syndicated television show on Sinclair network affiliates. Williams’ share of ownership is undisclosed.
At the meeting with Sun employees, Smith called Williams a “serious writer” who had a second-to-none Rolodex.
Williams was not immediately available to speak, but posted on social media that he is committed to delivering “fair, balanced news.”
Sara April, a partner at the Santa Fe law firm Dirks, Van Essen & April, which specializes in media mergers and valuations, said the Sun’s sale reminded her of what happened to a small newspaper in Oregon. In 2017, a firm controlled by a businessman named Steven Saslow bought the Mail Tribune in Southern Oregon with financial help from Sinclair.
Under Saslow’s ownership, the paper began working closely with Sinclair’s local affiliate, KTVL, collaborating on stories, and even moving into the same building, according to The Oregonian. The paper focused heavily on video production and wrote fewer stories. Jefferson Public Radio reported that the website for the Mail Tribune turned largely into a site full of videos, including some from a conservative commentator based outside the state.
The Mail Tribune cycled through four editors in the span of six years, with at least one editor leaving after he raised concerns about the paper’s political coverage, according to The Oregonian; Saslow unsuccessfully tried to sell the paper in 2022 before shutting it down completely the next year.
This article may be updated.