The glow hasn’t lasted very long on the sale of The Baltimore Sun, which initially was characterized by some as “local ownership” rescuing the storied publication from rapacious and parsimonious owners.
The new owner, media executive and conservative donor David D. Smith, met the staff of his acquisition and, as The Baltimore Banner reported, “told employees he has only read [The Sun] four times in the past few months, insulted the quality of their journalism and encouraged them to emulate a TV station (Fox45) owned by his broadcasting company,” including by running daily unscientific online polls.
This behavior serves to validate the worst fears: That The Sun’s journalism under Smith’s ownership will be a deluge of slanted, right-wing agenda-setting, laundered through Fox News-style “fair and balanced” branding. Those fears are based on Smith’s role as executive chairman of Sinclair Broadcast Group, infamously known for pushing conservative content through the local newscasts of the nation’s largest collection of owned-and-operated television stations. They are also fueled by Smith’s donations through his family foundation, which The Banner has reported includes large donations to such hard-right organizations as Young Americans for Liberty, Project Veritas, Turning Point USA and Moms for Liberty — all of which play key roles in the Donald Trump/MAGA universe.
Locally, Smith has bankrolled 2022′s Question K, in which voters approved term limits on the mayor, comptroller and City Council members. This year, he is funding a campaign to lower Baltimore City’s property taxes by almost half over the next seven years — even as the city grapples with a projected $1.8 billion budget deficit over the next decade.
To be fair, wealthy men buying newspapers to gain power and influence is as old as the republic itself. It is also true that what many people might think of as the Golden Age of newspapers — roughly from the end of World War II (when Baltimore readers had three daily newspapers, including an evening and morning Sun) to the 1990s — was also an era when many readers did not see the stories of their communities covered adequately and accurately. Plus, it’s the era in which Rupert Murdoch built a right-wing global newspaper empire that eventually gave birth to the Fox News Channel.
But just as people of color, LGBTQ+ people and women made laudable progress in making news organizations more responsive to the needs and interests of everyone in their communities, the pursuit of outsize profits by owners and shareholders ran headlong into Silicon Valley’s evisceration of the news industry’s lifeblood, its ad revenue stream. That’s the short story of why The Sun today is a shadow of its former self.
Staffing a diverse newsroom that each day covers the complexity and richness of a community such as Baltimore is expensive. For the civic-minded who see journalism as a community service and a bedrock of democracy, it’s not an attractive business. Even audacious billionaires with bold promises, such as Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and biotech entrepreneur Patrick Soon-Shiong, owners respectively of The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times, are overseeing layoffs and belt-tightening.
But for someone rich in cash and ego who would rather sell his story than tell yours, newspapers remain an appealing platform.
The good news is that the complacency that settled over the news industry when ad dollars were gushing into corporate coffers has been replaced by serious soul-searching and rethinking. That has led to a willingness to consider new models that reflect the role of journalism as an essential public good, not simply a product to be engineered for maximum profit. That includes nonprofit models exemplified by The Baltimore Banner and by papers such as The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Chicago Sun-Times. It also includes strategic uses of public funding, such as California’s $25 million local news fellowship program, which pays the salaries of young reporters deployed to news outlets throughout the state with a mandate to focus on underreported issues and communities.
Last year, a bill that died in the Maryland General Assembly would have granted small businesses a tax credit for money spent on news media advertising in the state. That approach deserves a second look. So do projects in other states, including the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium, which has been funding local newsgathering in the state since 2018. Encouraging cooperative media ownership, either by employees or some other combination of stakeholders, also deserves more serious consideration. The Associated Press is itself a type of cooperative, and there are a few cooperative media outlets in Europe.
Given the prominence The Sun still holds even in its emaciated state, Baltimoreans must insist that The Sun continue under its new owners to be the “light for all” promised in its motto. But if that fails, residents don’t have to settle for darkness. We can embrace new models and create new structural supports for fact-based, public-service journalism that sees all of us and our stories and is willing to be accountable to us. In that media landscape, we will all in a sense be local owners.
Isaiah Jerome Lewis Poole is a retired newspaper journalist and nonprofit communications executive residing in Washington, D.C. He is a founding member of the Washington Association of Black Journalists and the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association.