The Runback: Bainum's Baltimore Banner Battle
Stewart Bainum is dropping $15 million to start a competitor to The Sun. But he has some challenges in creating an all-digital operation.
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The NFL Should Do Something Constructive with the 17th Game: London should just be the Beginning.
The Monday Thought
A few months ago on The Duckpin Podcast, I called for Stewart Bainum to put his money where his mouth was after his deal to buy the Baltimore Sun fell through
Next year, Bainum will launch The Baltimore Banner, an all-digital, nonprofit news outlet. He told me it will begin with an annual operating budget of $15 million, unprecedented for an outfit of this kind. It will rely initially on philanthropic donations, but he aims to sell enough subscriptions to make it self-sustaining within five years. He’s acutely aware of the risks—“I may end up with egg on my face,” he said—but he believes it’s worth trying to develop a successful model that could be replicated in other markets. “There’s no industry that I can think of more integral to a working democracy than the local-news business,” he said.
The Banner will launch with about 50 journalists—not far from the size of the Sun—and an ambitious mandate. One tagline he was considering was “Maryland’s Best Newsroom.”
When I asked, half in jest, if he planned to raid the Sun to staff up, he responded with a muted grin. “Well,” he told me, “they have some very good reporters.”
Bainum has been planning this under our noses for a little while now. Documents filed with the Maryland State Department of Assessments & Taxation filed paperwork for The Baltimore Banner trade name back on September 10th.
It’s fascinating to see that Bainum is both planning a brand new news operation with a $15 million per year operating budget. But what’s more fascinating is the fact that he is planning this as an all-digital outlet.
That a new, full-time newsroom is being launched in Baltimore is fantastic. But people often underestimate the importance of a dead-tree edition local paper.
I’ve been writing in the online space for nearly two decades at this point. I’ve written lots of stories, lots of opinions, that have made major news across the state. But it has been rare when those stories transcend the “plugged-in” online political activists and news junkies. When it has, it’s been stories like the Save Our Flag movement or the Chelsea Manning Senate filing that got widespread mainstream coverage in physical papers.
The times that my writing has ruffled many feathers and gotten lots of attention were the days when I was writing my column in The Baltimore Sun. There are people that read the paper that just don’t pay as much attention to the digital media world, regardless of the times. For example; I wound up in public spats with two Mayors of Baltimore over two separate columns. It’s one of the reasons why I continued to write columns that appear in the dead-tree editions of The Capital and the Carroll County Times; there are customers of hard copy, dead-tree papers that don’t read the paper online. Especially true in a world of paywalls and
Maryland has two full-time, dedicated news outlets that focus on politics; Maryland Reporter and Maryland Matters. Both cover state and local government. But if you ask most people on the street who may not be as focused on politics, they may have never heard of either site. That is no knock on them; they are writing for different audiences and don’t have the financial firepower to advertise extensively on the net. But if you ask those folks about The Sun, or the Frederick News-Post, or the Delmarva Times, or the Harford Aegis, or a bunch of other local papers in the area, those folks would be intimately familiar with them
That is the challenge that Bainum faces in setting up The Baltimore Banner. The optimal solution would be for Bainum to produce a hard-copy edition of the paper and sell it at a cheaper price than The Sun (if there is one thing the Baltimore Examiner experiment taught us is that people don’t have a very high opinion of free newspapers, either). For whatever reason, the wider population gives more credence to hard copy papers than the internet-only variety.
That of course, however, flies into the face of the current economic state of the newspaper industry. One of the reasons that we’re even in this position is because the economics of newspaper ownership are disadvantageous to long-term owners to keep up financially, opening up the door to groups like Alden Capital to buy them and create the news vacuum that The Baltimore Banner is ostensibly going to fill.
But I’m also not the one with a nine-figured checking account who is trying to make this happen; Bainum is, and a digital start-up is better than no start-up.
And yet, The Baltimore Banner could still wind up making the same journalistic mistakes that the Sun does. It’s still unsure who all is involved in the decision-making beyond Bainum, and we have already seen the political lengths some those who were involved in the Save Our Sun campaign were willing to go. Bainum promised an unbiased newsroom. Let’s hope he sticks to that promise and also gives conservatives an actual spot on the opinion page, one that the Baltimore Sun has lacked since the defenestration of myself and my Red Maryland colleagues in 2014.
Either way, competition is good and creates innovation. I’ll be interested to see how this ultimately plays out.