The news that Maryland businessman and philanthropist Stewart Bainum stepped up to purchase the Baltimore Sun and the other publications of the Baltimore Sun Media Group and run our news organization as a nonprofit is a potentially huge development for readers in Baltimore and Maryland who want to be informed about life in their communities and state. If the proposal gets final approval, the best scenario would leave us at some point better able to more comprehensively cover the news of the region and the nation with a larger staff of reporters, photographers and editors. That’s the hope at least. It’s not only a way for the newspapers in our group to survive, but maybe even thrive. That we have gotten this far is a credit to my colleagues who pushed the idea — those engaged in the Baltimore News Guild’s Save Our Sun effort (Scott Dance, Liz Bowie, Mary McCauley, Dave Wright, Sheila Washington-Cole, Curtis Hale, Amy Davis and Lily Reed) along with Ted Venetoulis, the Abell Foundation and Goldseker Foundation. I’ll have more on this later. For now, here’s an earlier post of mine, with some of the history and background, that explains why this new model — nonprofit and local ownership — is so necessary and promising.
Toward a brighter Sun
It’s as hard to imagine Baltimore without The Sun as a day without daylight. The newspaper’s motto, after all, is “Light For All,” an elegant and egalitarian expression of the desire to keep Baltimoreans and Marylanders as informed as good citizenship requires.
Arunah Abell, the top-hatted founder of The Sun in 1837 (at center in photo), charged only a penny for daily enlightenment. By the time his relatives and successors sold The Sun to a large media company 150 years later, it was worth a small fortune.
That sale, in the spring of 1986, was certainly good for those who profited, but not so much for the Sun’s staff and those we served, our readers.
Within the next decade, the new owner downsized and diminished the scope of what we covered in the urgency to maintain the profit margin shareholders demanded.
Quick background: Once upon a time, American newspapers were independently owned; for decades they were run by the families that had founded them. Those families lived in the communities where their newspapers were published. And even the most avaricious owners understood that professional journalism was a public service, and that high-quality journalism came with significant cost. They had to pay reporters and photographers, editors and artists. They had to cover the travel expenses of their journalists. In order to meet the ambition of “Light For All,” The Sun dispatched reporters across the country and around the world. Abell’s newspaper covered Washington, Annapolis and local governments in Baltimore, its suburbs and the Eastern Shore. For years, no other news organization in Maryland carried out its mission so comprehensively.
By the 1970s and 1980s, The Sun and other newspapers were still profitable, even as more Americans turned to television for news.
Newspapers became attractive to media companies, and media companies acquired more and more of them. For a time, Wall Street loved newspapers and media companies.
But the newspaper as a cash cow, even in the one-newspaper city that Baltimore became by the mid-1990s, did not last long. The Internet arrived, and soon people who might have subscribed to the paper opted to take it free online, or not at all. Advertisers did not see how they would benefit from advertising on newspaper websites. Craig’s List almost single-handedly cut off the flow of revenue for classified ads.
And so the squeeze was on. Abell’s newspaper, and newspapers around the country, could only show the profits Wall Street demanded by cutting costs. That’s why The Sun has a much smaller staff today. We have become intensely local in our coverage because that’s all we can do and do well. That’s proven by our record, and recognized nationally by our peers who hand us prestigious awards, including the Pulitzer Prize.
It is with a combination of sadness and measured enthusiasm that I regard our newspaper today. I have been a Sun staffer since 1976, a columnist since 1979. I have seen the good days and down days. I have seen too many sheet-cake farewells for people leaving The Sun and leaving journalism — smart men and women who loved to cover the news and tell stories with words and images. That’s what makes me sad: To think of the many colleagues whose careers as reporters and photographers were cut short by technological changes and the corporate demand for profits.
On the other hand, I see hope in the quality of young professionals who have come into our newsroom over the last 10 years. They work hard. They come up with great stories. They cover breaking news with verve. They produce a huge amount of content, feeding a robust reader appetite for information about Baltimore and the surrounding counties.
So, despite all the downsizing, we still manage to carry out old Mr. Abell’s mission, bringing light to each day for our readers.
But we could do so much more with a bigger staff of reporters and photographers. And, with more money going to salaries, we would be able to keep more of the young and talented journalists from leaving The Sun — or leaving the profession altogether.
So we need to take The Sun to a new and brighter place, and a place where we should have gone, for the sake of its mission, years ago.
“Less is more” does not work in journalism. We want to make The Sun a nonprofit, supported by underwriters and readers. If we do that, our managers can worry less about meeting profit goals and focus more on mission: “Light For All.” We would still be an intensely local news organization, but even more so.
I worked in public radio for eight years. I saw first-hand the willingness of Marylanders, individuals and institutions, to underwrite an important service — the daily flow of news, gathered by professionals, and broadcast in a manner both timely and comprehensive. It could happen for The Sun, too — in print and online.
Because I write opinion pieces, I frequently receive emails from readers who agree and disagree with my views. The ones who disagree express a hostility toward The Sun, based on the erroneous belief that we only publish liberal views in our opinion pages. In some cases, the criticisms are so harsh I don’t bother to respond. But most of the time, I do. And you know what? Most of the time, the angry reader becomes less angry and acknowledges that The Sun provides an important service to the community. I always thank that reader for supporting a free press and for caring about The Sun enough to write and complain about it.
In order to do more and serve you even better — to have an even brighter Baltimore Sun — I’m convinced we need the not-for-profit model. I hope you’ll support our effort to get there.
Click here to read more: Save Our Sun