By Scott Dance, Liz Bowie and Lillian Reed
When Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong bought the Los Angeles Times three years ago, he demonstrated that good journalism is worth paying for. Navigating the 21st century newspaper business may not be easy, but it is necessary for the good of our communities.
Now, there is a chance to begin a movement to set other vulnerable news institutions on a similar path.
It would be a revolution that began with a campaign we helped launch a year ago as reporters at The Baltimore Sun. We knew something had to be done to save our newspaper, and that we couldn’t do it alone. Now, we need help more than ever.
We need support from communities across the country to succeed. We need those who have written newspapers off to realize they aren’t beyond saving. And we need investors to stand behind us. Here’s why.
Tribune Publishing, which owns The Sun, The Chicago Tribune and seven other papers, is likely bound for a sale. Many expect it will end up in the hands of a hedge fund known for slashing already diminished local newspapers, Alden Global Capital. Or it could be sold to Stewart Bainum Jr., a Maryland hotelier intent on rescuing The Sun and placing it in the hands of a nonprofit, the Sunlight for All Institute.
The months-long saga is nearing an end. Bainum is making a bid for Tribune Publishing ahead of a May 21 shareholder meeting. He has committed $300 million in the belief that news organizations like The Sun are vital for a functioning democracy and can operate sustainably as nonprofits. His $680 million offer is $50 million more than Alden’s, but still isn’t a sure thing.
Most urgently, Bainum needs an investor to step forward to take over The Chicago Tribune. His deal cannot succeed without one, but with such a partner, he could be the first to break apart a newspaper chain and return news organizations to local ownership.
Other wealthy individuals, public media organizations and foundations have already stepped forward elsewhere to buy Tribune Publishing properties in Virginia, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New York and Florida.
Dr. Soon-Shiong was in a similar position three years ago, and succeeded. Now, he holds a key role in shaping the future of the Tribune newspapers in nine cities. As the second largest shareholder of Tribune stock, his “no” vote later this month would be enough to veto Alden’s takeover bid.
We helped launch the Save Our Sun campaign last year as a last-ditch effort; it gained the support of more than 7,000 petition signers, including the Baltimore region’s political and cultural leaders. This kind of support is possible — and necessary — elsewhere around the country, too. It’s more possible than many seem to think.
Whether you are in Chicago or Hartford or Newport News or anywhere else, we need your support.
We need readers to pay for quality news gathering that local TV, radio and online startups often cannot match. Research from the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Notre Dame has shown that when local newspapers are lost, taxes go up, voter turnout drops, disinformation festers and public corruption can become more likely.
We also need money from anyone who cares about democracy and is willing to step up and join Bainum. We are not asking for investors to take on a lost cause. Tribune Publishing has $250 million in the bank and no debt, and its papers have profit margins higher than some of the best papers in the country.
And we need journalists to set aside our instinct to stay out of the fray. We can do our jobs and be strong advocates for a healthy free press at the same time.
We have seen the consequences of inaction already. Since Alden took its one-third stake in Tribune Publishing, the company has cut its workforce by a third and shuttered most of its offices, while stocking away cash.
If Bainum wins, imagine what we could see instead — more impactful local reporting, a better informed public, and more local jobs. We’ve come so close to making it a reality in just a year. If Dr. Soon-Shiong were to join Bainum, or even just vote to reject Alden’s takeover, communities across the country would benefit.
Community journalism is worth saving, and it isn’t a lost cause. Help us turn the Sun’s guiding mantra since 1837 into a national call for local news: Light for All.
Scott Dance, Liz Bowie and Lillian Reed are leaders in the NewsGuild and reporters for The Baltimore Sun.