What we should hope for if Baltimore gets a ‘newspaper war’

Late last week, The Atlantic published a cover story about Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund that’s become notorious for implementing sharp cuts at its media properties. Local newspapers have increasingly been “targeted by investors who have figured out how to get rich by strip-mining local-news outfits,” McKay Coppins, the author of the story, wrote. “The model is simple: Gut the staff, sell the real estate, jack up subscription prices, and wring as much cash as possible out of the enterprise until eventually enough readers cancel their subscriptions that the paper folds, or is reduced to a desiccated husk of its former self. The men who devised this model are Randall Smith and Heath Freeman, the co-founders of Alden Global Capital.”

Besides a rare interview with the elusive Freeman—who delivered Coppins a jargon-laden monologue and declined to answer basic questions, like naming recent stories he’d appreciated by Alden titles, on the record—the newsiest nugget came at the end of the piece, where Coppins reported that Stewart Bainum, Jr., a Maryland hotel magnate who tried and failed to save the Baltimore Sun from Alden, has become “convinced that the Sun won’t be able to provide the kind of coverage the city needs” and is working to build “a new publication of record from the ground up.” It will be called the Baltimore Banner, and will launch next year as a digital-only, nonprofit newsroom. Bainum has been impressed by the work of a wave of local-news startups across the country, “but his clearest takeaway is that they’re not nearly well funded enough,” Coppins wrote. “To replace a paper like the Sun would require a large, talented staff that covers not just government, but sports and schools and restaurants and art.” To that end, Bainum is planning to launch the Banner with an annual operating budget of fifteen million dollars and fifty journalists on staff. Coppins asked, “half in jest,” if Bainum planned to raid the Sun’s newsroom. Bainum replied, “with a muted grin,” that the paper has “some very good reporters.”

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As Jim Friedlich—the CEO of the Lenfest Institute, a nonprofit that owns the Philadelphia Inquirer, who has advised Bainum and written for CJR about Aldenput it on Twitter after Coppins’s piece came out, the Banner would not be the first “meaningful civic news alternative” to rise up in a city with a struggling Alden title. Friedlich cited Santa Cruz, Chicago, and Denver as other examples, adding, “The lesson on Alden? Get mad AND get even. There are viable, scalable, and effective ways to rebuild local newsrooms in every city in which Alden is actively diminishing them.” Many other observers reacted positively to the Banner news—among them some journalists at the Sun. Liz Bowie, an education reporter at the paper who was involved in a campaign, “Save Our Sun,” that aimed to stop Alden taking it over, said that “no matter what happens” next, the Banner “will be good for the city and state, creating jobs and a much more competitive news ecosystem.”

Bowie makes an important point here about competitive news ecosystems. Not all that long ago, it was normal for major cities, and even some minor ones, to have two well-resourced local papers that competed roughly as equals—but, as Jane Kim reported for CJR in 2009, the number of two-newspaper towns dwindled over time and the dynamic came to a head with the financial crisis; that year saw the closures of the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, the Post-Intelligencer in Seattle, and the Citizen, in Tucson, Arizona. The following year, the owners of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin acquired the rival Advertiser and merged the papers as the Star-Advertiser; in 2016 and 2019, respectively, Tampa Bay and New Orleans saw one paper subsume a competitor. Both those cases entailed significant job losses. The decline of the two-newspaper town has brought a broader sense of loss, too. In 2010, John Temple, who was editor of the Mountain News before it closed and went on to lead Civil Beat, in Honolulu, wrote of the latter city’s newspaper merger that “the new reality has disturbing implications for the city’s journalism, commercial vitality and public life. There’s something depressing about not being able to compare the coverage in two competing papers to try to understand what’s going on in a city.”

In many places—including both Honolulu and Denver—newer, typically digital outlets have replaced at least some of what has been lost, but these newsrooms have often operated on a smaller scale than the typical shuttered or subsumed paper managed in its heyday. Some towns have managed to retain two traditional papers, from big cities like New York, Chicago, Detroit, and Boston to smaller ones like Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and Crawfordsville, Indiana. Just like New York, Aspen has a Daily News and a Times; as the Colorado media-watcher and CJR contributor Corey Hutchins noted last year, the Times reported on a lawsuit that a former staffer brought against the Daily News, forcing the Daily News to comment on it. (“How does one separate oneself from any bias in covering a lawsuit in which one’s own organization and leadership are named as the defendants?” it wrote. “The answer, it became clear, is one does not. But that doesn’t mean silence is the appropriate ­response, either.”) Still, it’s not like all these papers are in robust health. The Chicago Tribune and the New York Daily News are both now owned by Alden. Coppins covered the former’s desperate plight in his piece. As of last month, the latter is being led on an interim, “as-needed” basis by an editor in Connecticut.

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As two-newspaper towns have declined, not everyone has agreed that the development is irredeemably terrible. As far back as 2009, some observers were pointing to the flourishing of new local-coverage models online. Rival papers in some cities, meanwhile, have become locked in destructive “newspaper wars”—within the past decade, the San Francisco Examiner sued the San Francisco Chronicle, alleging that the latter paper sought to harm it by slashing ad prices, and the Las Vegas Sun alleged that the rival Review-Journal, under its late owner Sheldon Adelson, tried to weaponize a joint-operating agreement in a bid to force the Sun out of business. Last year, Laura Frank, a former staffer at the Rocky Mountain News who had just taken charge of COLab, a group that facilitates collaboration between local news outlets in Colorado, told Hutchins that “the amount of resources that we wasted in the competitive model was really kind of criminal. And nobody has those resources now.”

It strikes me, however, that none of these arguments is fatal for the concept of the two-newspaper town, in and of itself; the problem here is the lack of resources, and sustainable business models, for local journalism—and those are problems in zero-, one-, and two-paper towns alike. It may seem a distant prospect, but we should ideally want a news economy in which two rival papers can coexist healthily not only with each other, but with online outlets, public radio, and TV stations—not one where competing local outlets are locked in the Hunger Games. Different locales have different coverage needs, and it’s fair to argue that one paper replicating another’s coverage might not always be the best use of resources. But rival papers, too, are capable of collaboration. “Newspaper wars” don’t have to be warlike.

Ultimately, more journalists covering a place or beat is usually better for democracy than fewer; an old-school, two-print-papers local ecosystem isn’t necessary to achieve this, but there is value to big cities, in particular, harboring multiple outlets working at a similar scale. That, to me, is what makes the Baltimore Banner so interesting, and we should be careful not to resign ourselves to the prospect of a zero-sum newspaper war in which either it or the Sun must wind up dead. The priority, of course, should be to save local news in Baltimore—but there ought to be room for both the Banner and the Sun in that equation; pledging to open a newsroom with fifty staffers is a serious commitment, but even in 2009, with the Rocky Mountain News on the brink of closure, that paper and the Denver Post had some five hundred reporters covering the city between them. Ultimately, should the Banner succeed in Baltimore, it shouldn’t diminish our concern for the Alden-induced fate of the Sun and its staff—both of which still need saving.

Below, more on local news:

  • A loss: As Coppins notes in his piece and the Washington Post has previously reported, Ted Venetoulis, a former Democratic politician in Maryland, was centrally involved with the Save Our Sun campaign as Alden prepared to acquire the paper’s parent company; Venetoulis, Coppins writes, advised reporters at the Sun “to pick a noisy public fight: Set up a war room, circulate petitions, hold events to rally the city against Alden.” Earlier this month, Venetoulis died. He was eighty-seven. According to Maryland Matters, Venetoulis “had his own history in publishing, as owner of Times Publishing Group, which published several weekly newspapers including the Baltimore Messenger, The Jeffersonian, Owings Mills Times and Towson Times.” He also published a business magazine.
  • From our archives: Last year, Savannah Jacobson went deep on Alden for CJR. “Media observers note that they make cuts almost from day one,” she wrote. “Pens and notebooks disappear from newsrooms. One newsroom was missing hot water. Then newspaper buildings are sold, and staff is consolidated and cut.” Meanwhile, this year, Sara Sheridan spoke with Elizabeth Hansen, of the National Trust for Local News, and Larry Ryckman, the managing editor of the Colorado Sun, a digital publication founded by former staffers at the Denver Post, after they teamed up to acquire a chain of community newspapers in the state. You can read the interview here.
  • A newspaper war: Last year, Clarity Media, the company that owns the Colorado Springs Gazette, launched the Denver Gazette as a digital rival to the Denver Post, teeing up what Hutchins described at the time as “half a newspaper war.” (Interestingly, Clarity owns the rights to the Rocky Mountain News brand but chose not to revive it.) Michael Hancock, the mayor of Denver, has since described the Denver Gazette as his “first tap of the day.” Earlier this month, the paper hired away David Migoya, a high-profile investigative reporter, from the Denver Post. Hutchins has more.
  • A war in a newspaper: On Friday, Bernie Sanders urged Joe Manchin, his fellow Democratic senator, to drop his opposition to key planks of President Biden’s spending plans—via an op-ed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail, a newspaper in Manchin’s home state of West Virginia. Manchin—who also got annoyed after Vice President Kamala Harris did a West Virginia media tour earlier this year—hit back at Sanders in a blistering statement. “This isn’t the first time an out-of-stater has tried to tell West Virginians what is best for them,” Manchin wrote. “Congress should proceed with caution on any additional spending and I will not vote for a reckless expansion of government programs. No op-ed from a self-declared Independent socialist is going to change that.”


Other notable stories:

  • On Friday, the Wall Street Journal’s Bojan Pancevski reported on Axel Springer’s plans for Politico, with the German media giant’s takeover close to finalized: Mathias Döpfner, Axel Springer’s CEO, said that his company intends to go on a hiring spree and put free content behind a paywall; he also expects Politico staffers to abide by Axel Springer’s core values, including support for free-market economics and Israel’s right to exist. Then, yesterday, Ben Smith, the media columnist at the Times, dropped a story of his own on Axel Springer, reporting on a secretive investigation into “a workplace culture that mixed sex, journalism and company cash” at Bild, the company’s top tabloid in Germany. Smith also reports that Döpfner was interested in acquiring Axios and merging it with Politico.
  • Meanwhile, Justin Peters asks, for Slate, why the Times still hasn’t forced Smith to sell his stock options in BuzzFeed, where he was previously the editor in chief; Smith disclosed in early columns that he would divest his options by the end of 2020 and not extensively cover BuzzFeed before then, but the Times has since pushed his divestment deadline back to February 2022, and isn’t saying why. “Not only is it bad for readers to have a media columnist whose motives they cannot absolutely trust to be disinterested,” Peters argues, “it’s aggravating to have to read a media columnist who either can’t write or probably shouldn’t be writing about such a broad swath of digital media.”
  • Last week, Netflix fired a staffer who led a resource group for trans colleagues; bosses accused the staffer of leaking data about a Dave Chappelle comedy special, which has been widely decried as transphobic, to the press, but, according to The Verge, the staffer opposed sharing the data outside the company. Bloomberg’s Lucas Shaw, the reporter who obtained the data, also obtained metrics showing the success of Squid Game, a recent Netflix hit. An attorney for Netflix tried to persuade Bloomberg not to publish the figures, noting that the company “takes significant steps to protect them from disclosure.”
  • Also last week, Apple fired Janneke Parrish, a program manager, for “non-compliance” after she deleted files (including the Pokémon GO app) from work devices while she was under investigation for leaking confidential information to the press. Parrish was one of the leaders of #AppleToo, a movement that gathered employees’ stories of workplace mistreatment, and believes that she was fired in retaliation for her involvement. “This shows that there are consequences for standing up and saying, ‘I disagree,’” she said.
  • Margaret Sullivan, a media columnist at the Post, explores how Rolling Stone, “that bible of baby boom rock,” is trying to reinvent itself under Noah Shachtman, its new top editor. “One conversation we had before Noah took the job was whether I’d be prepared to back tough reporting when the inevitable complaints came,” Gus Wenner, the president of Rolling Stone, told Sullivan. Sullivan’s column notes a few recent stories that have already tested Wenner’s commitment.
  • The Denver Art Museum pledged to return four items in its collection to Cambodia after the Pandora Papers, a journalistic collaboration based on a massive leak of offshore financial data, shone a fresh light on the objects’ ties to Douglas Latchford, an art dealer who was indicted in 2019 for trafficking in looted artifacts. Questions about the items had been raised by a blog that covers looted antiquities. The Colorado Sun has more details.
  • Last week, supporters of Michel Aoun, the president of Lebanon, stormed the offices of Al-Sharq, a news organization, after it took aim at Aoun’s conduct in 1990, during the country’s civil war. The Committee to Protect Journalists has more. The incident took place against a backdrop of deepening economic and political turmoil in Lebanon.
  • And Succession, the comedy-drama series about a fictional media dynasty with sharp real-life overtones, returned last night for its third season. If you locked your phone in a high-security vault and missed everyone talking about it, CNN has you covered.

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Update: This piece has been updated to clarify the relationship between the founders of the Colorado Sun and the Denver Post.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

TOP IMAGE: Sign at the Baltimore Sun's former Calvert Street office. Photo credit: like_the_grand_canyon/Flickr, via Creative Commons.