The Media Begged for Local Investment in Journalism. Then a Conservative Bought the Baltimore Sun. 

The Baltimore Sun
(Image via Flickr user Brent Payne)
January 23, 2024

For years, the mainstream media consensus was that the Baltimore Sun needed a local buyer to restore the storied newspaper to greatness. The fate of journalism—if not American democracy—was said to be at stake.

Then, earlier this month, a wealthy local media executive bought the Sun from its hedge-fund owner. He pledged to grow the paper by investing more in "community news and investigations," the Sun reported.

And yet, journalists and news outlets overwhelmingly reacted to the news not with joy, but rather with dismay. MSNBC host Alex Wagner last week characterized the development as "extremely dangerous to our democracy."

The problem?: The Sun's new owner, David Smith, is the executive chairman of Sinclair broadcasting and a political conservative.

It's the latest instance of the mainstream media handwringing about conservative influence on their industry, even as systemic anti-conservative bias has appeared to help drive their audiences and revenues into the tank.

Flashback: In 2021, Sun reporters pleaded for a local buyer to step in and block Alden Global Capital's impending takeover of the newspaper. National media amplified and echoed the reporters' warnings that the hedge fund's purchase of Lee Enterprises, a local newspaper group that includes the Sun, would deal a "death blow" to local journalism, as the Washington Post put it at the time.

Axios, Nov. 23, 2021: "Notorious Hedge Fund Sparks Panic About Death of Local News"

Lawmakers, local reporters and journalism advocates are sounding the alarm over a takeover attempt of local newspaper group Lee Enterprises by Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund known for cutting journalists at local papers to maximize profits. ...

Policymakers also expressed concern, but it doesn't seem like there's any real regulatory threat standing in Alden's way. ...

Some experts argue that the Biden administration's Department of Justice should take a different approach when evaluating the harm of this merger and other local media consolidation deals.

Poynter Institute, July 1, 2021: "Alden Buyouts Have Eliminated More Than 10% of Tribune Publishing Newsroom Staffing in Just Six Weeks":

Hedge fund Alden Global Capital, true to its cut-and-slash reputation, has bought out and let go at least 10% of the newsroom workforce since it acquired Tribune Publishing six weeks ago. ...

Experience shows, however, that one should never underestimate Alden’s proclivity to cut more.

Associated Press, May 26, 2021: "Alden Puts Its Stamp on Tribune With New Debt and Leadership":

In a series of reports, the University of North Carolina’s journalism school has noted that the "media barons" of this century are investment firms that ramped up buying of newspapers in trouble after the 2008 recession. These hedge funds and private equity firms typically finance acquisitions with debt and then slash costs, including layoffs. Profits, the report says, are not invested in journalism but go toward debt, management fees, and shareholders.

New York Times, May 21, 2021: "New Owner Set for Chicago Tribune, Daily News, and Baltimore Sun":

Tribune Publishing, the owner of some of the largest metropolitan newspapers in the United States, will be acquired by a hedge fund with a reputation for slashing costs and cutting newsroom jobs, after shareholders voted to approve the deal on Friday. ...

The losses have hollowed out local news coverage across the country, and with growing polarization and rampant disinformation, reliable coverage of institutions like state houses and city councils is more important than ever. The slump has crippled outlets that people rely on to know about everything from school board decisions to local sports scores.

Washington Post, Mar. 15, 2021: "A Maryland Business Executive Wanted To Buy The Baltimore Sun. Now He May Try to Buy the Rest of Tribune’s Newspapers.":

The closely watched acquisition is seen as one of the last stands of the local newspaper industry, which has been gutted by decades of cost-cutting and has been further decimated by the advertising fallout during the coronavirus pandemic.

Flash forward: In the end, fears that Alden would make deep cuts to the Sun's newsroom proved overblown, as the hedge fund settled for shuttering the paper's printing press. Smith, however, has articulated a more ambitious vision for the Sun that sounds a lot like the media's dream scenario.

"I’m in the news business because I believe … we have an absolute responsibility to serve the public interest," Smith said last week. "We have one job, to tell the truth, present the facts, period. That’s our job."

According to the Sun: "He said he believes he can grow subscriptions and advertising for the Sun and its other publications by focusing more heavily on local and community news and investigations, boosting the use of video and social media, and integrating technology in ways other print media companies have been unable to do."

Nevertheless, the media focused on Smith's supposedly problematic ties to conservatives, starting with Sinclair, which was not involved in his purchase of the Sun.

New Republic, Jan. 19: "The Right-Wing Media Takeover Is Destroying America":

The purchase of the Baltimore Sun is further proof that conservative billionaires understand the power of media control. Why don’t their liberal counterparts get it?

Axios, Jan 17: "Baltimore Sun Sale Met With Mixed Reactions":

The intrigue: Smith's acquisition, which includes other Baltimore-area publications and the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, is being met with hesitation by some in the region and the larger media world. ...

Sinclair outlets have long been critiqued for covering Republican presidential candidates more favorably, and the Post found that the media company gave an outsized amount of favorable and neutral coverage to Donald Trump compared to Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign.

New Republic, Jan. 17: "Baltimore Sun’s New Right-Wing Owner Kicks Things Off by Insulting Everyone on Staff":

It’s clear what Smith’s aim is with his purchase of Maryland’s largest daily newspaper. His TV empire’s local Baltimore station has been keen on a series of coverage blaming the city’s Black, Democratic mayor, Brandon Scott, for a flurry of local issues, including ongoing gun violence and education-related issues. And Smith’s tax records, obtained by the Associated Press, paint a clearer picture of the multimillionaire’s political affiliations, with donations to far-right political messaging machines like Project Veritas and Turning Point USA. Campaign contributions by the 73-year-old have also generally veered Republican for the last couple decades, according to a report by the Center for Public Integrity.

Associated Press, Jan. 16: "The Baltimore Sun is Returning to Local Ownership—With a Buyer Who Has Made His Politics Clear":

Smith serves as executive chairman of the Maryland-based Sinclair Broadcasting Inc., which owns or operates 185 local television stations across the country and is known for infusing a right-wing sensibility into its news products. ...

NPR, Jan. 16: "The Baltimore Sun Has Been Sold to a Conservative Broadcast Chief":

The storied paper is shifting hands from a hedge fund to a local businessman, yet the identity of that owner has stunned many people in the Sun newsroom and beyond. ...

[DAVID FOLKENFLIK:] So [Smith] is the executive chairman of Sinclair Broadcast Group, which is based in Baltimore County. I actually reported on them for a few years...they've also been pulled strongly in a conservative direction. I don't think that was any accident. David Smith has given a lot of money to Republican candidates over the years and also to very conservative causes, including right-wing outlets like Project Veritas of those gotcha videos and Turning Point USA, which is really a far-right advocacy group.

The Wrap, Jan. 16: "New Baltimore Sun Owner Introduces Himself to Staff by Insulting the Outlet’s Journalistic Quality":

Additionally, multiple media reports allege that Smith insulted the quality of journalism the Sun has been producing and encouraged staffers to emulate Fox 45 News.

Hollywood Reporter, Jan. 16: "‘The Wire’ Creator David Simon Laments After Baltimore Sun Sold to Sinclair TV Chairman":

While Smith is local (Sinclair’s headquarters is in the Baltimore suburb of Hunt Valley), the TV company’s history of infusing some national politics into its local news coverage, combined with Williams’ role in acquiring the newspaper, raised eyebrows among online media critics.

Also last week, CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy in his newsletter called Smith's purchase of the Sun a "local media deal that has set off alarm bells."

Former CNN media critic Brian Stelter told MSNBC's Wagner that "this is likely the end of the Sun as a nonpartisan, widely-trusted outlet."

CNN host S.E. Cupp described the news as "a sickening blow."

Elie Mystal, the Nation's justice correspondent and a regular MSNBC guest, said on X, formerly Twitter: "Meanwhile, the right wing Sinclair TV station guy bought the Baltimore Sun and it looks like he will wreck it in the most predictably Republican way possible."

There is little evidence that conservative influence is responsible for traditional news media's decades-long decline in reach, income, and credibility. Instead, polling shows that Republicans and other Americans are increasingly fed up with mainstream journalists' liberal bias.