Baltimore Banner, a news startup, aims to challenge The Sun

BALTIMORE — Local news wars have largely gone the way of the phone booth, as newspapers have withered and reporters’ jobs have been cut. But one is taking shape in Baltimore, bringing a new kind of rivalry.

The Baltimore Banner, an online news site that began publishing in recent weeks, is trying to compete with the 185-year-old Baltimore Sun. The Banner has hired some of The Sun’s best reporters, creating a newsroom of over 40 people so far. And he has had a number of exclusive reports, including on a dispute between the sons of the owner of the Baltimore Orioles over the future of the baseball team.

This was not the original plan of Stewart W. Bainum Jr., the hotel mogul behind The Banner. He tried to buy The Sun last year but lost out to Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund that has become the country’s second-largest newspaper operator. He is now competing against them, wary of the plans Alden, known for cutting editorial costs, has for The Sun.

“I kept thinking about local news during Covid, sitting here in Maryland, thinking about the dearth of local news.yes,” Mr. Bainum, a longtime resident of Takoma Park, Md., said in an interview.

“I just think there has to be a way to figure this out,” he added.

The Banner, which charges by subscription, is already one of the largest in a string of local news startups trying to fill the void left by the closure and downsizing of thousands of newspapers across the country since the boom. from Internet. . More than 360 local newspapers closed between the end of 2019 and May alone, according to a report released this week by Northwestern University’s school of journalism. And Mr. Bainum has plans to turn The Banner into a newsroom of more than 100, dwarfing The Sun in size, and has promised to contribute or raise $50 million over the first four years.

The bold entry is a test of whether a subscription model for digital-only local news can be sustainable beyond initial philanthropic capital, and whether there is an appetite for a second big news publication in cities where competition used to be commonplace. There are also several smaller digital news outlets in the region, including the Baltimore Fishbowl, Baltimore Brew, and Baltimore Witness. Axios plans to expand its local newsletters to the city this year, and the Baltimore Beat, a black-run nonprofit, plans to resume publication after a hiatus during the pandemic.

“If you’re really going to go up against an established media entity in this kind of economic climate, you better go in like a samurai,” said Josh Tyrangiel, a former Bloomberg Media and Vice executive who grew up in Baltimore and provided informal advice. to Mr. Bainum.

“Don’t tread softly, go in hard and expect that you will have to spend a lot of money on the product and market it,” said Mr. Tyrangiel. “The people of Baltimore are now conditioned to expect very little from their newspaper.”

Trif Alatzas, the publisher and editor-in-chief of The Sun, said in a statement that the Baltimore Sun Media, which also includes several other local newspapers, was proud to have the largest newsgathering team in the region, with a total of 100 journalists.

While Mr. Alatzas did not respond to a question about the competition posed by The Banner, he did say that his newspaper’s subscribers had increased this year.

“We continue to see growth, and we look forward to continuing to provide our readers with the most comprehensive news and information from Baltimore,” said Mr. Alatzas.

Baltimore became a battleground in the local news crisis more than two years ago when Alden revealed he had taken a 32 percent stake in Tribune Publishing, the parent company of The Sun and newspapers including The Chicago Tribune and The New York Daily News, making her the company’s largest shareholder.

Concerned journalists began desperately seeking out local owners to take over newspapers due to the hedge fund’s reputation for profiting by dismantling newsrooms. In February 2021, the Tribune announced that it had reached an agreement to give Alden full ownership and sell The Sun and two smaller Maryland publications to Mr. Bainum.

But the deal fell through. Bainum then made offers all over the Tribune, including an offer valuing the company at around $650 million in which he would put up $200 million of his own money. In May 2021, shareholders voted to approve the sale of Tribune to Alden for approximately $630 million.

The failed attempt to buy The Sun did not deter Mr. Bainum, who was energized by the idea of ​​establishing a nonprofit newsroom to serve the city. Mr. Bainum, president of Choice Hotels International and a former Maryland state legislator, consulted with other nonprofit leaders and executives from major media companies to find a model that might work.

He worked with Ted Venetoulis, a former county executive and publisher in Baltimore who had been trying to buy The Sun for a long time. They decided the best option was to start with a sizable newsroom with the best talent they could find, rather than build slowly.

Running The Banner as a nonprofit organization would make it easier to fund and accept contributions, as well as make it easier to build partnerships with other nonprofits in the community.

Mr. Venetoulis died in October at the age of 87. The non-profit organization that runs The Banner was named the Venetoulis Institute for Local Journalism in his memory.

Mr. Bainum has hired Kimi Yoshino, senior editor of the Los Angeles Times, as editor-in-chief. Ms. Yoshino moved to Baltimore in January. She said that the vast majority of the journalists she had hired were from Baltimore or Maryland, or had previously worked there.

Liz Bowie, a longtime Sun education reporter who was part of the team that won the Pulitzer Prize for local reporting in 2020, is one of the hires.

“I worked at The Sun for 35 years, my husband worked at The Sun, my mother worked at The Sun,” Bowie said in an interview. “So he was really committed to that institution.”

But, he added, “I emotionally left The Sun” when shareholders voted to sell Alden. Ms. Bowie joined The Banner this year as one of its first reporters.

“I think we will be able to be bigger and we will cover more of the city because all the money will go directly back to journalism,” he said.

In addition to Ms Bowie, The Banner has hired reporters Justin Fenton, Tim Prudente and Pamela Wood from The Sun. Mr. Fenton, an award-winning investigative reporter whose book about a corrupt Baltimore police unit, “We Own This City,” was recently made into an HBO series, had worked at The Sun for 17 years.

He said he had seen The Sun’s newsroom shrink to a shadow of its former self, when it had foreign bureaus and 300 reporters, and was excited to build something new.

“Now we go face to face,” he said. “Can this city sustain two big news organizations?”

Imtiaz Patel, a former Dow Jones executive who is CEO of The Banner, said the operating budget for the first year was about $15 million. He said paid subscriptions would be about half of the revenue mix, with advertising accounting for about a quarter and the rest coming from things like events and donations.

Readers can read a certain number of free articles a month before a paid subscription is required. A subscription costs $3.99 per week, or $155 per year.

Mr. Patel said the goal was to reach 100,000 paid subscribers to break even and five million monthly unique visits to the website by 2025. He said he did not want to rely any further on Mr. Bainum’s funding after a few years.

Mr. Bainum said the goal was to build a premier local news site for Baltimore and determine if it was a business model that would work elsewhere. But he also said that he wasn’t going to let the experiment go on forever.

“If four or five years later this is just a black hole, then you know there are other places to invest philanthropically,” Bainum said. “But I’m going to stick with it for four or five years anyway at least.”

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