By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Why we should be wary of The Baltimore Sun’s return to local ownership

The Baltimore Sun’s convoluted ownership journey took an unexpected turn on Monday. The notorious hedge fund Alden Global Capital, which acquired the paper as part of its purchase of Tribune Publishing in 2021, sold the Sun to David Smith, who’s executive chairman of the television network Sinclair. The price has not been disclosed.

Smith is a Baltimore guy, and he’s buying the Sun as an individual — that is, the Sun will not be part of Sinclair. In that respect, the deal is similar to Jeff Bezos’ purchase of The Washington Post in 2013. The Post is not part of Amazon, although the mega-retailer was enlisted to sell discount descriptions to the Post, especially during the early years of Bezos’ ownership.

We are in the early hours of the Sun deal, so we don’t know how this is going to play out. It’s striking how much fear and criticism I’ve seen given Alden’s reputation as the worst newspaper owner on the planet, infamous for slashing newsrooms, selling off real estate and making journalists work out of their homes. Normally a transfer to independent ownership would be celebrated, and, in fact, Smith might provide an infusion of cash and energy. Then again, he might also bring his toxic brand of right-wing politics to the Sun.

The Sun is the flagship of a regional group that also includes the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, the site of a horrific mass shooting some years ago.

This didn’t have to happen. Back when Tribune was for sale, Baltimore hotel magnate Stewart Bainum reached an agreement to buy the Sun from Alden once Alden had acquired Tribune. Bainum, though, came to believe that Alden was not adhering to that agreement, and he wound up bidding for all of Tribune’s nine major-market newspapers.

Although Bainum was offering more money than Alden ($680 million versus $635 million), word at the time was that Alden’s bid was more straightforward, and the vulture capitalists won the prize. Among other things, Patrick Soon-Shiong, the billionaire owner of the Los Angeles Times and then a member of Tribune’s board, declined to stop the sale to Alden, for which he was roundly criticized.

Bainum, meanwhile, used some of his wealth to found The Baltimore Banner, a nonprofit digital venture that immediately established a reputation for journalistic excellence. It will be fascinating to see whether Smith rebuilds the Sun into a worthy competitor to the Banner, or if instead he uses it to grind his political axe.

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1 Comment

  1. Candy Thomson

    As a 25-year Baltimore Sun staffer, I fear the worst from Mr. Smith, who is well-known to those of us in Maryland.
    In 2004, Sinclair gave us the anti-Kerry, anti-truth Swift Boat “documentary.” The local and state news reporting on Fox 45 often borders on cartoons. And, of course, Mr. Smith’s partners in the Sun venture is Armstrong Williams, the right-wing columnist and architect of Ben Carson’s presidential campaign.
    Alden sold the Sun only after it had sucked all the value out of the property. It is a shell, little more than the iconic Sun flag and masthead and a handful of journalists.

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