Imtiaz Patel, the chief executive officer of The Baltimore Banner, will step down on July 7 to join the senior leadership of Gannett, the nation’s largest newspaper chain, he announced in a memo to staff Wednesday morning.
During his tenure, Patel has helped grow The Banner from a concept to one of the largest local news startups in the country. The nonprofit digital news site first published on June 14, 2022, and now has 100 employees, including about 65 in the newsroom.
“I’m tremendously proud of what we have achieved to bring locally owned, not-for-profit news to Baltimore,” said Patel, who will remain on the board of directors. “We have over 70,000 subscribers with paid access, a growing audience and work that has already had a meaningful impact. With a strong leadership team in place, I am confident that The Banner will go from strength to strength.”
Stewart Bainum Jr., the founder and chair of the Venetoulis Institute for Local Journalism, praised Patel for creating “a healthy culture of openness, collaboration, innovation and respect.” He credited Patel with hiring talented staff, taking time to interview most of the candidates himself. Patel also forged partnerships with WYPR, Baltimore’s NPR station, and WJZ-TV, the CBS affiliate.
“The culture and the talent is the foundation that will carry us forward for years to come,” Bainum said.
During the national search for a new CEO, former Boston Globe Editor Brian McGrory will help lead the nonprofit through the transition. McGrory is currently a member of the board and consults regularly with leadership. He is the chair of the journalism department at Boston University.
At a town hall meeting at The Banner’s waterfront office shortly after sending his note to staff, Patel, 56, said he is leaving for family reasons and a new opportunity and remains confident in The Banner’s future.
A shift in his wife’s role at her job required her to be in New York and made her eventual move to Baltimore untenable, he said. Patel had purchased a condominium in Baltimore, and his family was expected to join him this year. He was commuting back to New Jersey for part of the week.
In his letter to staff, he said he had been offered “an amazing opportunity to become a senior member of the leadership team, reporting to the CEO at Gannett. It’s something I couldn’t pass up.” Gannett has not yet announced his new position. The newspaper chain, the parent company of USA Today and more than 100 dailies, merged with the owner of GateHouse Media in 2019, forming the country’s biggest newspaper chain. In recent months, Gannett has cut thousands of jobs in what it described as a challenging economic environment for media.
“While I truly believe we are doing critical, amazing work, this is the right time for me to make the change. I am confident that we have built a strong foundation and talented leadership team, with a dedicated board that will continue to take The Banner to sustainability,” he said.
Patel won staff over with his transparency and accessibility. He sits at a desk in the middle of the office, holds monthly meetings, shares budget and financial data, and answers questions in an “ask Imtiaz” company Slack channel. He created an elected employee advisory board as a bridge between management and employees.
As a leader, he is both hard-charging and impatient, but instills a sense of fun and camaraderie in the workplace. “Imtiaz was not a CEO who hid in his office. As a leader, he is blunt, funny, and above all, honest — traits that are enormously important at a startup,” said Emily Sullivan, The Banner’s enterprise City Hall reporter.
“In less than a year, we’ve strengthened local journalism in the Baltimore region with impactful stories that have changed laws, righted wrongs and held our leaders accountable,” said Kimi Yoshino, The Banner’s editor in chief. “Imtiaz was crucial to The Banner’s launch, leading an important first chapter in our path to sustainability. I’ll miss him — his leadership, his wit, his drive — but the news never stops, and neither will we.”
Bainum, a Montgomery County businessman and chairman of Choice Hotels International, first hired Patel as a consultant three years ago when he became concerned about the demise of local news. “Then we embarked on this journey to try to find a sustainable model for local news,” Bainum said.
Later that year, Patel helped him in his effort to acquire the Baltimore Sun Media Group and its then-parent, Tribune Publishing, which owned newspapers in eight markets, including mid-sized and large cities.
Patel was a former executive with Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal, where he led circulation strategy and served as general manager of key business verticals. He also had advised news organizations, including Gannett.
When Bainum lost his bid and Alden Global Capital purchased Tribune on May 21, 2021, he believed that the hedge fund would continue to diminish The Sun, as it has done to newspapers in other local markets. He pivoted to the concept of building a news startup from scratch for Maryland and hired Patel to lead it. While small local news operations had begun springing up around the country, only a few had been able to create newsrooms large enough to rival a legacy newspaper in a mid-sized city. Bainum wanted to create a large-scale, nonprofit, sustainable news organization that could be replicated by others outside of Maryland.
At a time when the industry is shrinking, McGrory said The Banner is rethinking local journalism and the relationship between it and the region it covers. He does not believe the board will have difficulty recruiting top candidates. “It is one of the best jobs in the industry,” McGrory said, adding that the right person “will help The Banner thrive even more.”
Bainum said he expects the search for a successor to take months, but is not concerned about the transition to new leadership.
“I remain just as confident as I was a week ago,” said Bainum.