The internet has pretty much killed local news wars. The Baltimore Banner, a nonprofit start-up, is trying to change that by taking on The Baltimore Sun.
A crew putting the finishing touches on The Baltimore Banner’s office sign last month.Credit…Andrew Mangum for The New York Times
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BALTIMORE — Local news wars have largely gone the way of the phone booth as newspapers have shriveled and reporter 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 started publishing in recent weeks, is trying to go head to head with the 185-year-old Baltimore Sun. The Banner has hired some of The Sun’s best reporters, building a newsroom of more than 40 people so far. And it has had a string of exclusive reporting, including on a feud between the sons of the Baltimore Orioles’ owner over the future of the baseball team.
This wasn’t the original plan of Stewart W. Bainum Jr., the hotel magnate 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. Now he’s competing against them, wary of the plans that Alden, which is known for cutting newsroom costs, has for The Sun.
“I kept thinking about local news during Covid, sitting here in Maryland, thinking about the dearth of local news,” Mr. Bainum, a longtime resident of Chevy Chase, Md., said in an interview.
“I just think there has to be a way to figure this out,” he added.
The Banner, which charges for a subscription, is already one of the largest in a raft of local news start-ups that are trying to fill the void left by the closing and downsizing of thousands of newspapers around the country since the rise of the internet. More than 360 local newspapers closed between late 2019 and May alone, according to a report released this week by Northwestern University’s journalism school. And Mr. Bainum has plans to build The Banner to a newsroom of more than 100, eclipsing the size of The Sun, 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 the initial philanthropic capital, and whether there’s an appetite for a second large news publication in cities where competition used to be commonplace. There are also several smaller digital news outlets in the region, including Baltimore Fishbowl, Baltimore Brew and Baltimore Witness. Axios plans to expand its local newsletters to the city this year, and Baltimore Beat, a Black-run nonprofit, plans to resume publishing after a hiatus during the pandemic.
“If you’re really going to take on 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 forcefully, and expect that you’ll have to spend a lot of money on the product and to market the product,” Mr. Tyrangiel said. “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 Baltimore Sun Media, which also encompasses several other local newspapers, was proud to have the largest news-gathering team in the region, with 100 journalists total.
While Mr. Alatzas did not respond to a question about the competition posed by The Banner, he said his paper’s subscriber numbers had increased this year.
“We continue to see growth, and we are looking forward to continuing to provide our readers with Baltimore’s most comprehensive news and information,” Mr. Alatzas said.
Baltimore became a battleground in the local-news crisis over two years ago when Alden revealed that it had taken a 32 percent stake in Tribune Publishing, the parent company of The Sun and newspapers like The Chicago Tribune and The New York Daily News, making it the company’s largest shareholder.
Worried journalists began desperately seeking local owners to take over the newspapers because of the hedge fund’s reputation for eking out profits by gutting newsrooms. In February 2021, Tribune announced that it had reached a deal to give Alden full ownership and sell The Sun and two smaller Maryland publications to Mr. Bainum.
But the deal ran aground. Mr. Bainum then made bids for all of Tribune, including an offer valuing the company at about $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 roughly $630 million.
The failed attempt to buy The Sun did not deter Mr. Bainum, who found himself energized by the thought of setting up a nonprofit newsroom to serve the city. Mr. Bainum, the chairman of Choice Hotels International and a former Maryland state legislator, consulted with other nonprofit leaders and executives at major media companies to figure out a model that could work.
He worked with Ted Venetoulis, a former county executive and publisher in Baltimore who had long been trying to buy The Sun. They decided that the best shot was starting with a sizable newsroom with the best talent they could find, instead of building slowly.
Running The Banner as a nonprofit would make it easier to finance and to accept contributions, as well as easier to do partnerships with other nonprofits in the community.
Mr. Venetoulis died in October at age 87. The nonprofit organization that runs The Banner was named the Venetoulis Institute for Local Journalism in his memory.
Mr. Bainum hired Kimi Yoshino, a top editor at The Los Angeles Times, as editor in chief. Ms. Yoshino moved to Baltimore in January. She said the vast majority of the journalists she had hired were from Baltimore or Maryland, or had previously worked there.
Liz Bowie, a longtime education reporter for The Sun 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,” Ms. Bowie said in an interview. “So I was really committed to that institution.”
But, she added, “I sort of emotionally left The Sun” when shareholders voted to sell to Alden. Ms. Bowie joined The Banner this year as one of its first reporters.
“I think we’ll be able to be larger and we’ll cover more of the city because all of the money will go straight back into the journalism,” she said.
In addition to Ms. Bowie, The Banner has hired the 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 turned into an HBO series, had worked at The Sun for 17 years.
He said that he had watched The Sun’s newsroom diminish to a shadow of its former self, when it had foreign bureaus and 300 reporters, and that he was excited by the thought of building something new.
“Now we’re going head to head,” he said. “Can this town sustain two large news organizations?”
Imtiaz Patel, a former Dow Jones executive who is the chief executive of The Banner, said the operating budget for the first year was about $15 million. He said paid subscriptions would be about half the revenue mix, with advertising making up 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 is $3.99 a week, or $155 for the year.
Mr. Patel said the goal was to get to 100,000 paid subscribers to break even and five million monthly unique views on the website by 2025. He said he wanted to no longer rely on funding from Mr. Bainum after a few years.
Mr. Bainum said the goal was to build a first-rate local news site for Baltimore and to figure out whether it was a business model that would work elsewhere. But he also said he wasn’t going to let the experiment last forever.
“If at four or five years this is just a black hole, then you know there are other places to invest philanthropically,” Mr. Bainum said. “But I’m going to stick with it for four or five years anyway at least.”