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Jan. 16, 2024, 2:30 p.m.

The Baltimore Sun explores the question of whether there can be a worse newspaper owner than Alden Global Capital

Its new owner, Sinclair executive chairman David D. Smith, has pushed local TV news hard to the right. Will he do the same with newspapers — a medium he’s called “so left wing as to be meaningless dribble…so devoid of reality and serving no real purpose”?

It’s a question only the bravest have dared contemplate: Is there something worse for a newspaper than being owned by Alden Global Capital?

The vulturous hedge fund has, after all, been traditionally seen as an end-stage owner. In the old days, newspaper owners existed in an ersatz great chain of being. Family-owned papers worried about being bought by McClatchy; McClatchy papers feared being scooped up by Gannett; Gannett papers recoiled at the thought of being bought by Alden Global Capital. But Alden papers — despite all the associated indignations — could at least rest easy that there was no worse owner to worry about. There’s a certain stoic grace to recognizing rock bottom.

Well, what has until now been a philosophical thought experiment is about to hit reality in Baltimore. From Lorraine Mirabella’s story in this morning’s Baltimore Sun:

The Baltimore Sun, the largest newspaper in Maryland, has been acquired in a private deal by David D. Smith, executive chairman of Hunt Valley-based television station owner Sinclair Inc.

Smith said Monday that he acquired Baltimore Sun Media on Friday from investment firm Alden Global Capital, marking the first time in nearly four decades that The Sun will be in the hands of a local owner.

Smith decided to personally buy the newspaper, along with the Capital Gazette papers in Annapolis, Carroll County Times, Towson Times and several other Baltimore-area weeklies and magazines, because of the publications’ focus on local news in the Baltimore area.

“I’m in the news business because I believe…we have an absolute responsibility to serve the public interest,” Smith said in an interview. “I think the paper can be hugely profitable and successful and serve a greater public interest over time.

“We have one job, to tell the truth, present the facts, period. That’s our job.”

One could quibble with David D. Smith’s commitment to that “one job.” Smith is, after all, the man most responsible from turning his father’s three second-tier UHF stations into a local TV colossus, with more than 180 stations producing more than 2,400 hours of local news each week. But Sinclair has become best known for its willingness to press the Smith family thumb on the political scale. To mention only a few:

  • During the 2016 campaign, Smith met with Donald Trump and offered the then-candidate exclusive access to Sinclair reporters, saying “We are here to deliver your message. Period.”
  • Trump advisor/son-in-law Jared Kushner bragged about a deal he struck with Sinclair to have extended Trump interviews broadcast without commentary during Sinclair stations’ local news programming.
  • After Trump’s election, Sinclair hired former Trump spokesman Boris Epshteyn as its chief political analyst and ordered stations to air his pro-Trump commentaries during local news broadcasts. His were only a few of the many “must-run” segments Sinclair imposes on stations, including shows by QAnon-curious Sharyl Attkisson and nightly conservative editorials by Mark Hyman.
  • In 2018, Sinclair ordered its local stations to repeatedly air corporate-penned promos aligning themselves with Trumps attacks on the media, an experience one Sinclair anchor said “felt like a POW recording a message.” It also spawned this instant-classic groupthink mixtape:

    Trump endorsed the promos, tweeting that “Sinclair is far superior to CNN and even more Fake NBC, which is a total joke.”

  • Sinclair’s tendencies go back much farther than Trump, though. Weeks before the 2004 presidential election, Sinclair ordered its stations to broadcast an hour-long documentary — preempting prime-time programming — titled Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal that blamed Democratic nominee John Kerry for the torture of American prisoners of war in Vietnam, a claim pushed by the so-called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. After public blowback and an advertiser boycott that led to a 17% drop in Sinclair’s stock price, the company announced it would not air the program after all.

    That episode came a few months after Sinclair ordered its ABC stations not to air an episode of Nightline that featured a listing of American dead in the Iraq War, saying it seemed “motivated by a political agenda designed to undermine the efforts of the United States in Iraq.” Republican Sen. John McCain said the decision was “a gross disservice to the public…It is, in short, sir, unpatriotic. I hope it meets with the public opprobrium it most certainly deserves.”

    That episode followed Sinclair’s attempts to put a sunny face on the Iraq War by sending its conservative commentator Mark Hyman to Iraq to tell “upbeat” stories about the American occupation. (“‘What’s really fascinating to me is the optimism that so many Iraqis have,’ Hyman says by satellite phone from Baghdad. And, contrary to what the rest of the media says, he finds they are brimming with good cheer toward Americans.”)

  • Even if its swiftboating John Kerry doc never hit airwaves, Sinclair has gone back to the pre-election anti-Democratic idea repeatedly. In November 2010, its stations in swing states aired an anti-Obama infomercial that claimed his campaign was funded by Hamas, that he viewed America “with an outsider’s point of view, often with hostility,” and that his “views are far too extreme for Americans to accept.” The night before the 2012 election, Sinclair stations — again, just those in swing states — preempted network news with a corporate-produced but local-anchor-hosted special with Fox News-style rhetoric like “The cost of Obamacare is making many Americans sick to their stomach.”
  • In 2020, a few months into the pandemic, Sinclair scheduled a segment to air on stations promoting the conspiracy theory that Anthony Fauci had personally created the COVID-19 virus and shipped it to China. (The lower-third graphic read “DID DR. FAUCI CREATE COVID-19?”) After blowback, Sinclair announced it would postpone and “rework” the segment.

This is only a sampling. I didn’t even mention Circa! Or the morning-show segments sold to an alt-right conspiracy theorist! For a fuller bill of goods, see John Oliver’s segment on Sinclair six years ago.

Sinclair’s roots are in Baltimore, where Julian Sinclair Smith built his first UHF station, WBFF, in 1971. David Smith presumably grew up reading the Baltimore Sun, so it must feel nice to buy the paper as a retirement project. (Smith says Armstrong Williams, the conservative commentator, will be a minority shareholder in the acquisition.) I say “presumably” only because the 73-year-old native Marylander and media executive deeply involved in local politics just claimed to a Sun reporter that he somehow “began regularly reading The Sun only a few months ago.” (I unsuccessfully tried to reach Smith for comment.)

The Sun is not — independent of emotional or political considerations — an especially appealing investment project. What was once considered an above-average metro daily was serially gutted by Tribune’s Sam Zell, Tronc’s Michael Ferro, and Alden’s Heath Freeman. (Though, it should be said, not to the same extent as the New York Daily News and other Alden papers.)

The Sun also has one of the strongest local competitors of any metro daily in The Baltimore Banner, a nonprofit news site that launched in 2022. The Banner owes its existence to first Tribune’s and then Alden’s refusal to sell the Sun to Baltimore hotel magnate Stewart W. Bainum, Jr.; Bainum started the Banner in response.

The two outlets are remarkably even competitors. The Banner currently lists a newsroom staff of 73, many of them former Sun staffers; the Sun lists 91 staffers, but that total includes around 20 who work on one of the Sun’s sibling suburban papers, which Smith is also buying. (At its peak, the Sun’s newsroom had 500 staffers.) The Sun has all the cashflow advantages of print distribution — but the Banner gets to avoid all the strategy taxes of print distribution. If you believe Similarweb data, the Banner gets around 1.8 million visits/month versus the Sun’s 3.2 million — not bad for a 19-month-old startup. The Banner reported having 70,000 paying subscribers last summer (though many of those were still on cheap introductory rates or group deals). That’s not too far from the 80,000 digital subs the Sun reported having at the end of 2022.

Smith told the Sun he didn’t have any major strategic shifts in mind, but he did find time to dump vaguely on Baltimore’s “mainstream media.” (“Smith criticized ‘mainstream media’ in general for focusing on issues he said affect only a few people as opposed to those affecting greater numbers, adding that he finds it ‘curious that the mainstream media in this town often chooses not to cover things that affect everybody,’ in particular concerning problems and corruption in government.”)

He was perhaps a bit more blunt with New York magazine in 2018.

“The print media is so left wing as to be meaningless dribble which accounts for why the industry is and will fade away. Just no credibility,” Smith said in an email to a New York reporter. He added that Sinclair executives “don’t talk to the print media as a general principal as we find them to be so devoid of reality and serving no real purpose.”

I doubt we’ll see that line in Baltimore Sun marketing anytime soon.

Why Alden would sell to Smith now — and not to Bainum a couple years ago — is an open question. In 2021, Bainum and Alden reportedly agreed on a $65 million sale price — until Alden insisted on Bainum adding a $12 million/year fee to Alden for running the Sun’s backend for five years. Smith’s purchase price for the Sun has not been made public. But the paper’s story about the deal indicates he agreed to some version of Alden’s annual fee. (“For now, he said he plans to retain the service agreements that Alden had in place with Tribune Publishing for newspaper design, human resources, accounting and other backroom functions.”)

On the other hand, though, Alden is profoundly coldhearted about its newspaper decisions. Its mission is purely financial, not civic. The Baltimore Sun is to Alden a means to an end — free cashflow — and if market conditions have degraded to the point that it no longer can, selling it off to a motivated bidder makes perfect sense. (Especially if you can finagle the sort of fee-for-management deal that Fortress soaked Gannett with a few years back.) Even if you don’t like hedge funds as local newspaper owners, that doesn’t mean you’ll like whoever they eventually unload their remains to any better.

It’s a big election year. January has already seen conservative activists lining up to throw more money down The Messenger’s money pit. Maybe David Smith really is inspired only by a desire “to help turn around a struggling newspaper industry.”

But we know what Sinclair-style journalism can do. The national media notices the big swings, like the John Kerry “documentary” or the Trump deal, but its news programs push things to the right in smaller ways daily. And it has an impact. A 2018 study by Emory’s Gregory J. Martin and Josh McCrain found that stations bought by Sinclair (a) reduce their coverage of local politics roughly 10%, (b) increase coverage of national politics roughly 25%, and (c) move the ideological content of their news shows significantly to the right.

Other research has found similar effects. A 2019 study found “Sinclair-owned affiliate stories exhibited more cable news-style elements…more stories with dramatic elements, commentary, and partisan sources.” A 2021 study found that, based on stations Sinclair purchased between 2008 and 2018, “living in an area with a Sinclair-owned TV station lowers viewers’ approval of President Obama during his tenure in office, and makes viewers less likely to vote for the Democratic nominee for president… These effects are consistent with Sinclair persuading roughly 6% of its audience to disapprove of the President and become less likely to vote for Democrats, and these effects are robust to a wide variety of different modeling assumptions.”

The Emory study found that these new Sinclair stations weren’t reacting to pent-up demand for conservative local news. Indeed, they on average lost viewers when they made these changes — but not enough to meaningfully damage Sinclair financially, especially since national news costs less to make than local news, which must be done separately in each market. It’s a reasonable tradeoff for the ideologically motivated news executive to make. Indeed, a few months ago, Sinclair decided to shut down local news operations at 10 of its stations and fill the airtime with its own conservative national news program.

David Smith has, to my knowledge, never owned a newspaper — much less one with a feisty newsroom union. He deserves, like anyone, a chance to get things rolling before being judged as an owner. But I’d be very curious to be a fly on the wall the first time he orders up a Sun equivalent to Sinclair’s “must-runs.” Maryland may not be a swing state this year, but a lot of people will be watching how the newsroom’s journalists respond.

Photo of the old Baltimore Sun building by Like_the_Grand_Canyon used under a Creative Commons license. (Tribune sold the building in 2017.)

Joshua Benton is the senior writer and former director of Nieman Lab. You can reach him via email (joshua_benton@harvard.edu) or Twitter DM (@jbenton).
POSTED     Jan. 16, 2024, 2:30 p.m.
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