The Good and the Bad of the Baltimore Sun Takeover Attempt

One of the things that we have seen as part of the decline of local media is the lack of local ownership in Maryland’s newspapers. The Baltimore Sun’s ownership by the Tribune Company has not been great for the paper nor has it been great for local politics. Notwithstanding our real criticisms of the paper (primarily, but not exclusively, of the radically left-wing editorial page) The Sun has been doing yeoman’s work in trying to cover things here locally.

Whether you like The Sun or not, having The Sun as a viable entity is critically important for our state. As Baltimore is the nexus of our state, The Sun is our nexus of local media. That’s why it was so heartening to see this pop up last night:

Two local foundations, a former county executive and a NewsGuild chapter are trying to put together a bid to buy The Baltimore Sun out from Tribune Publishing.

The effort has some urgency. Alden Global Capital owns a third of Tribune Publishing stock and appears to be exerting pressure to slash costs. Alden’s “standstill” agreement not to buy more Tribune shares expires in June.

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On its surface, that is wonderful news for us locals. Despite all of my issues with the Baltimore Sun Guild, I would welcome and relish local ownership. Something I tweeted to that effect:

The Salt Lake Tribune was the first major newspaper to become a strictly non-proift organization back in November.

When you start digging into the weeds however, there are concerns that should be addressed.

Let’s take a look at the parties who are involved in the effort to buy the paper:

Though not listed on the Save Our Baltimore Sun website but listed in their press release, the Abell Foundation as being a player in this proposal as well. While notable that it was the Abell Family who originally owned the Sun, it is also notable that the President of the Abell Foundation is Robert Embry, the father of Rushern Baker’s 2018 running mate and former Baltimore Mayoral candidate Elizabeth Embry.

The presence of the Baltimore Sun Guild, two agenda-driven non-profits, and four prominent and connected Democrats raises all sorts of alarm bells.

Let’s talk about the non-profits. The Abell Foundation and the Goldseker Foundation have specific, ideologically driven agendas. How is their involvement in this process going to be reported? How will issues that the Abell Foundation and the Goldseker Foundation have interest in or have invested in going to be addressed?

The Democrats bring about even more concern. That’s particularly true of the involvement of Kearney and O’Doherty. Their current media outlet, Center Maryland, has masqueraded as “news straight down the middle”. But it was also noted that Center Maryland team members were lobbying on the floor of the State House, and that they were actively involved in lobbying for casinos, speed cameras, and other high profile political issues.

It’s strange that the involvement of prominent Democrats, as well as Democratic-aligned non-profits with specific agendas in potentially owning the local paper of record, hasn’t yet sparked concern among Sun reporters about gigantic conflicts of interest. Especially given our recent history with the Health Holly scandal and how KO Public Affairs was tied into that mess as well.

Now other non-proift newspapers have addressed this in the past. The Salt Lake Tribune has its policies clearly laid out on their site:

Will board members have sway over what the paper covers?

The Tribune maintains a strict firewall between governing bodies, advisers, donors and the newsroom. That means they will have no more influence on editorial decision-making than any other members of the public. The same rules apply to advertisers and sponsors, as has been the practice historically.

What about donors? Will they influence your reporting?

No. While we will seek financial support for reporting and special projects, no donor or gift will be able to direct the organization’s reporting on issues, people or organizations. All donations to The Salt Lake Tribune will be public. We are committed to full transparency and understand that this is fundamental to the trust our readers have in The Tribune.

While that is certainly appropriate for a non-profit to take those positions, it’s concerning that the Save Our Sun website does not address this firewall.

Now I have joked in the past about starting a GoFundMe to buy The Baltimore Sun. But my point was that Baltimore, that Maryland, that we all need local ownership of our paper of record. Locally owned independent media is important (it’s why I kicked the tires on buying the City Paper from the Sun before they closed it down). Is the Sun Guild’s efforts to bring about local ownership an improvement over the current situation? Yes, it absolutely is. But it needs to be improved upon.

If the public is going to trust the new ownership, whether non-profit status is attained or not, the group needs to say now what their firewall procedures are going to be between the editorial board and corporate leadership and between the newsroom and corporate leadership.

If the public is really going to buy into the notion that the paper is fair a balanced, the leadership group needs to expand beyond the union, politically connected Democrats, and left-leaning non-profits. There are plenty of other people and other groups who are either conservative, independent or not politically connected at all, who would have a vested interest in being involved with repatriating the paper to Maryland and would be willing to invest their time into this effort.

This effort to bring ownership of The Baltimore Sun home and make it a non-profit is a good thing. But it needs to be done with care and in a way that does not look political or raise concerns of bias. This idea can and should be made better.

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