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Baltimore Sun, building, 2012
The Baltimore Sun building at 200 St. Paul Place, Baltimore, MD, 2012. Photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Groupuscule / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0 DEED) and The Baltimore Sun / Wikimedia.

The Baltimore Sun is snapped up by the owner of a rightwing broadcast network, who brags that he doesn’t read newspapers.

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Many in Baltimore were cheering Monday morning, January 15, when they read that their iconic Baltimore Sun newspaper had been sold to a local buyer after four decades of absentee ownership. 

Local billionaire businessman David Smith of Hunt Valley, a posh Baltimore suburb, bought the city’s only daily, along with several affiliated Maryland newspapers, from Alden Global Capital for an undisclosed amount described by Smith as “nine figures.” 

For 20 years, the industry has seen rapacious hedge funds such as Alden — often referred to as “vulture capitalists” — purchasing strong regional newspapers such as the Denver Post, the Orlando Sentinel, and the Orange County Register, dismembering them for quick profits, selling off the physical assets, and firing many of the people (the most expensive part of the business). Given his moves so far, including paying a premium for the paper, Smith seems to be more interested in using the Sun to advance his ideological political views in the city and state.

The day after the sale, the cheers turned to jeers as Smith, scion of the Sinclair Group media empire located in Hunt Valley, addressed the Sun staff in a testy, three-hour meeting. 

As reported by the Baltimore Banner, a feisty online daily launched to compete against the Alden-owned Sun, Smith denigrated the Sun and insulted its journalists. He said the paper should shift its focus and emulate Sinclair’s local television station, FOX45. He said he hadn’t read newspapers in decades and that they are mostly left-wing rags. Smith also disclosed that right-wing Sinclair commentator and entrepreneur Armstrong Williams is a minority owner in the Sun purchase.

Smith is the executive chairman of Sinclair Group after serving for decades as CEO. Sinclair is a publicly traded (SBGI:NASDAQ) family-controlled television and radio station owner with a decided right-wing, Trump-supporting slant. The company is the largest owner of Fox News-affiliated stations. In 2016, Sinclair officials told Trump in a meeting, “We are here to deliver your message.” 

Smith bought the Sun properties himself, not through his company, where he is no longer in day-to-day control.

Smith denigrated the Sun and insulted its journalists. He said the paper should shift its focus and emulate Sinclair’s local television station, FOX45. He said he hadn’t read newspapers in decades and that they are mostly left-wing rags.

The Sun, founded in 1837 as the city’s first daily newspaper, was owned locally until 1986, when the Tribune Publishing Co. bought it. In 2021, Alden, a hedge fund noted for hollowing out its newspaper purchases in pursuit of higher short-term profits, bought Tribune for $633 million. At that time, another Baltimore billionaire, Stewart Bainum, owner of nursing home and hotel chains and a liberal Democratic activist, tried to buy the Sun. He had a deal with Alden to buy the paper for about $63 million, but it fell apart when Alden demanded a lucrative side deal to run the backroom operations for a large annual fee.

Alden stripped down the Sun’s business operations but was unable to decimate the newsroom, as the reporters and editors refused buyout offers en masse. Under the Sun’s union contract, Alden couldn’t fire reporters and editors. Under Tribune ownership, the paper won a 2020 Pulitzer Prize in local reporting for stories that uncovered fraud by the city’s mayor, Catherine Pugh, resulting in her conviction, prison sentence, and resignation.

Frustrated with the failure of the Alden deal, Bainum founded the nonprofit Baltimore Banner in June 2022 and bankrolled it with $50 million. The Banner now employs 75 journalists, many former Sun reporters, and is hiring more. The Banner also has an agreement to provide news coverage for WYPR, Baltimore’s National Public Radio affiliate. Circulation is growing and more than halfway to breakeven.

Sinclair began operating in the 1960s when Baltimore businessman Julian Sinclair Smith, father of David Smith, bought a local FM radio station. In 1971, he launched a UHF TV station, WBFF, the company’s first foray into television. The company grew slowly for the next 20 years. In 1991 David Smith took over and began building the modern Sinclair behemoth, first acquiring another TV station in Pittsburgh.

Smith’s appetite for media properties grew and in 1995 the company went public with 13 TV stations to finance his expansive aspirations. In 1996, the 104th Congress, with both the House and Senate under Republican control for the first time since 1953, passed the Telecommunications Act, which liberalized media ownership rules.

Sinclair acknowledges that the new law fit precisely into its business plan. Smith went on a fabulous buying spree. By the end of 2014, the company owned and operated 185 stations. Today, it owns 193 stations, plus some specialty programming networks, such as the Tennis Channel, which it bought in 2016 for $350 million.

Sinclair also tried to buy Tribune Media in 2017 for $3.9 billion, which would have added additional stations to its TV stable. But in 2018 the deal fell afoul of the Federal Communications Commission, which ordered a review by an FCC administrative law judge. Sinclair dropped the deal.

As further evidence of Sinclair’s ties to Trump, in 2017 the company hired Boris Epshteyn, a Trump senior advisor — and later, during Trump’s 91-count criminal indictment avalanche, one of his lawyers — to be a political analyst.

Sinclair has also created its own programming, through what’s known in the company as “must-runs.” These are long-form right-wing editorials, including Armstrong Williams commentaries that Sinclair stations must air over weekends. Following the 9/11 attacks, Sinclair produced must-run pieces supporting George W. Bush’s launch of warfare against Afghanistan and Iraq. Staff of Baltimore’s WBFF, Sinclair’s flagship, objected that the flag-waving commentary compromised their political neutrality. The must-run segments ran despite the staff’s objections.

As further evidence of Sinclair’s ties to Trump, in 2017 the company hired Boris Epshteyn, a Trump senior adviser — and later, during Trump’s 91-count criminal indictment avalanche, one of his lawyers — to be a political analyst. Sinclair required its stations to air Bottom Line with Boris nine times a week. The program was canceled in December 2019.

While Sinclair does not now own the Sun, it’s likely Smith’s political views will impact the Sun’s news coverage, particularly on local politics. 

Three days after announcing his purchase, the Banner reported, “Standing in a conference room on the 22nd floor of a downtown office tower, with views of the courthouse and City Hall to his right, new Baltimore Sun owner David D. Smith started sharing opinions.”

Smith opined on the 2015 death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old, Black Baltimorean who died while in custody of the city’s police. Gray’s death resulted in rioting and looting, and in the suspension of and serious criminal charges against six city cops. None were convicted. Smith said that the Freddie Gray tragedy left the police department staff demoralized and unwilling to do their law enforcement jobs.

Smith also criticized the city schools, long a Sinclair target. He said the city schools produced unprepared students who face nothing but a life on welfare, what he called an “inner city lifestyle.” Fox45 (WBFF) has a long-running campaign critical of the Baltimore City school system, known as “Project Baltimore.”

Baltimore will see a highly-contested mayoral race this year, pitting a bevy of Democrats seeking the party’s nomination against incumbent Brandon Scott, fighting for his political life. Republicans are scarce and disorganized in Charm City. According to the Baltimore Brew local news site, Smith has donated $100,000 to former Mayor Sheila Dixon (D) for her 2024 run.

Dixon won the mayor’s race in a 2007 special election to succeed Martin O’Malley, who was elected Maryland governor in 2006. She got 87 percent of the vote, running on combating city crime against an overmatched GOP opponent. In 2009, Dixon was indicted on 12 misdemeanor and felony charges related to soliciting Best Buy gift cards from two local real estate developers, saying they would be donated to charities. She used them for herself.

In a plea bargain, Dixon was convicted of one misdemeanor charge and received probation in return for stepping down as mayor. She ran again unsuccessfully in the 2016 and 2020 in close mayoral primary races. She announced last September that she will run again this year.

The Brew reported about “an understanding between Dixon and Smith in which the Hunt Valley mogul and a small circle of friends would raise money for Dixon’s mayoral campaign in return for her support of Smith’s conservative agenda, which includes dismantling Baltimore’s Safe Streets program, pushing out Schools Chief Sonja Santelises and other priorities.”

What can we expect of Smith’s stewardship of the Sun? The Poynter Institute’s Rick Edmonds wrote: 

In just the first day of his tenure, Smith is giving all the signs of being the kind of rich guy who thinks he is so smart he can quickly master running a little business like a local newspaper. It’s not all that easy, and any competent adviser would tell Smith so. 

Smith’s record at Sinclair — nicely summarized in a piece by Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton — suggests he won’t be shy about imposing some ideology on his baby. He said as much in the meeting with staff. 

If Smith does go that route, he risks nudging liberals and moderates to the Banner and other news alternatives. And there are plenty of moderates and liberals in blue Baltimore. 

Add to that the comments of David Simon, creator of the HBO 2002-2008 series The Wire, which focused on Baltimore. Simon spent years as a Sun police reporter and featured the paper in Episode 5 of The Wire. On X, formerly known as Twitter, Simon wrote: 

What is left to say about American newspapering? Everyone who is in within the sound of an honest Bawlamer accent needs to subscribe to the @BaltimoreBanner right fucking now. If you do not you are simply complicit. 

Simon added that the Banner “is the only regional newspaper for the future. No presses, paper, trucks. Subscription monies fund on-line reportage as a non-profit venture. It can work if a city’s citizens commit to spending less than they would to have it delivered.”

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