Dear David Smith,
Congratulations on your new purchase. The Capital and The Sun are two of Maryland’s great newspapers. See what I did there? I mentioned The Capital first.
Even though most of the wailing you hear is about the fate of Baltimore’s daily newspaper, I led The Capital through its darkest times, helping our staff receive a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the mass shooting in our newsroom. It is a quintessential small-town newspaper and a treasure of American journalism.
I left The Cap in 2021 and now write a column for The Baltimore Banner, but there will always be room in my heart for the scrappy little paper in Annapolis, its big-city sister in Baltimore and the people who make them go today.
So that might have colored my reaction to the dazzling display of hubris you put on for your new staff Tuesday — did you think it would stay secret in a roomful of journalists?
If that was foreshadowing, you’ve set yourself and your new possessions on the road to ruin.
I agree that Baltimore Sun Media needs a breath of fresh air. I still read The Capital and The Sun, but many longtime subscribers have been driven away by cuts made to survive the financial storm facing journalism in the 21st century.
It needs the investment of resources and attention that local ownership can bring. Lots of people who rallied to The Capital after the June 28, 2018, newsroom shooting say the same thing.
I hope your purchase of these storied organizations will be good for them and Maryland journalism as a whole. I’ll suspend judgment of your ownership until I see evidence of your good or ill intent. I hope your subscribers and advertisers do, too.
There’s been a lot of loathing expressed for you since the news broke, much of it focused on the way you use your more than 200 TV stations to promote a conservative view of what’s wrong with America. I’ve got no problem with critical news coverage, or conservative values.
What I do object to is fear-mongering based on race, crime, gender, poverty and convenient stereotypes. That’s what many observers are worried you’re about to do, Mr. Smith.
I’ve never worked in local TV news, the business where you made your name as an ideologue. At its best, it brings the news to viewers in ways other media cannot. At its worst, it plays on our least admirable instincts for ratings and spends too much time on flashing lights.
Your FOX 45 in Baltimore is often guilty of that.
Ultimately, the key to your success or failure will be the quality of reporting that goes into stories. That is the core asset of journalism as a sustainable business, not its value as a platform for propaganda.
Right now, Mr. Smith, you must be thinking, “He must be a liberal.” But I’ve been called a conservative tool for talking with Maryland congressman Andy Harris about the chaos in Congress.
The chairman of the Annapolis Republican Central Committee once complained because I wrote him a one-word response to his complaints about liberal bias in coverage: “phooey.” That was shortly after being told by staff at The Sun that the opinion pages of The Capital were a conservative balance to their pages.
Phooey. I’m a journalist. I prefer nettlesome facts to lazy labels.
Journalism celebrates what’s good and points out what should be better, whether in Annapolis or Baltimore or the nation and the world. It creates a sense of community by establishing agreed-upon facts.
It sets the agenda for robust public debate without allegiance to one brand of politics or another. It informs the electorate.
You do that not with one story but with coverage built hour upon hour, year after year until you’ve spent a career pursuing the just-beyond-reach ideal of truth.
That gains the trust of readers. It is the foundation of a successful journalism model, whether at a business like yours or a nonprofit like The Banner. There’s much more to this complicated enterprise and plenty of examples of how achieving profit or sustainability isn’t guaranteed, even with good work.
But getting the journalism right first counts.
You’re right. Schools deserve close coverage, especially when they fail their students. Government leaders should be harried with questions about their decisions.
It’s just easier to tell your staff what the news is rather than letting them find it by asking questions and sifting through the answers.
If what you said about the price you paid for these newspapers is true — at least $100 million, hopefully including the contract for services with former owner Alden Global Capital — you’ve got the funds to run your newspapers the easy way. There probably would be an audience for it, for a while.
You just can’t do that and call it good journalism.
The Banner competes with The Capital and The Sun for subscribers, eyeballs and revenues. It would be easy to rebrand your business as the alternative for readers and advertisers seeking validation over honest reporting.
You’re predicting you’ll win the competition. Bully for you. The quality of the work I’ve seen from the Banner newsroom over 18 months and our success to date convinces me that pandering will not be a winning strategy for you.
I’ve worked for some nutty owners, and I know what they say and actually do can be different. So say what you want. Fund petition drives to change city government and brag about your TV reporters’ imaginary foot chases after frightened public officials.
I hope you pour more money and people into your news organizations and give them the resources to do great work. I hope you brag about it.
What happens next is an important news story for Maryland. I plan to follow where it goes; I know others do to.
In late 2022, I emailed my former boss Trif Alatzas, The Sun’s editor-in-chief and publisher, to let him know I was taking a job at The Banner. He was gracious.
His response reminded me of something he liked to say. It confirmed something I have seen every day of my lucky, long working life.
More journalism is good for everybody.
Maybe I should amend that to acknowledge concerns about what your ownership portends, Mr. Smith, for an institution I continue to wish the best.
More good journalism is good for everybody.