Business

Baltimore Banner, a News Start-Up, Aims to Challenge The Sun

BALTIMORE — Native information wars have largely gone the best way of the cellphone sales space as newspapers have shriveled and reporter jobs have been minimize. However one is taking form in Baltimore, bringing a brand new form of rivalry.

The Baltimore Banner, a web-based information website that began publishing in latest weeks, is attempting to go face to face with the 185-year-old Baltimore Solar. The Banner has employed a few of The Solar’s finest reporters, constructing a newsroom of greater than 40 folks thus far. And it has had a string of unique reporting, together with on a feud between the sons of the Baltimore Orioles’ proprietor over the way forward for the baseball group.

This wasn’t the unique plan of Stewart W. Bainum Jr., the resort magnate behind The Banner. He tried to purchase The Solar final 12 months however misplaced out to Alden International Capital, a hedge fund that has turn out to be the nation’s second-largest newspaper operator. Now he’s competing in opposition to them, cautious of the plans that Alden, which is understood for chopping newsroom prices, has for The Solar.

“I stored fascinated by native information throughout Covid, sitting right here in Maryland, fascinated by the dearth of native news,” Mr. Bainum, a longtime resident of Chevy Chase, Md., mentioned in an interview.

“I simply suppose there must be a option to determine this out,” he added.

The Banner, which prices for a subscription, is already one of many largest in a raft of native information start-ups which can be attempting to fill the void left by the closing and downsizing of 1000’s of newspapers across the nation because the rise of the web. Greater than 360 native newspapers closed between late 2019 and Might alone, in response to a report launched this week by Northwestern College’s journalism faculty. And Mr. Bainum has plans to construct The Banner to a newsroom of greater than 100, eclipsing the dimensions of The Solar, and has promised to contribute or elevate $50 million over the primary 4 years.

The daring entry is a check of whether or not a subscription mannequin for digital-only native information might be sustainable past the preliminary philanthropic capital, and whether or not there’s an urge for food for a second massive information publication in cities the place competitors was once commonplace. There are additionally a number of smaller digital information shops within the area, together with Baltimore Fishbowl, Baltimore Brew and Baltimore Witness. Axios plans to develop its native newsletters to the town this 12 months, and Baltimore Beat, a Black-run nonprofit, plans to renew publishing after a hiatus throughout the pandemic.

“If you happen to’re actually going to tackle a longtime media entity in this type of financial local weather, you higher go in like a samurai,” mentioned Josh Tyrangiel, a former Bloomberg Media and Vice govt who grew up in Baltimore and offered casual recommendation to Mr. Bainum.

“Don’t tread softly, go in forcefully, and count on that you simply’ll must spend some huge cash on the product and to market the product,” Mr. Tyrangiel mentioned. “The folks of Baltimore at the moment are conditioned to count on little or no from their newspaper.”

Trif Alatzas, the writer and editor in chief of The Solar, mentioned in an announcement that Baltimore Solar Media, which additionally encompasses a number of different native newspapers, was proud to have the most important news-gathering group within the area, with 100 journalists whole.

Whereas Mr. Alatzas didn’t reply to a query concerning the competitors posed by The Banner, he mentioned his paper’s subscriber numbers had elevated this 12 months.

“We proceed to see progress, and we’re trying ahead to persevering with to offer our readers with Baltimore’s most complete information and knowledge,” Mr. Alatzas mentioned.

Baltimore grew to become a battleground within the local-news disaster over two years in the past when Alden revealed that it had taken a 32 p.c stake in Tribune Publishing, the dad or mum firm of The Solar and newspapers like The Chicago Tribune and The New York Every day Information, making it the corporate’s largest shareholder.

Fearful journalists started desperately looking for native homeowners to take over the newspapers due to the hedge fund’s popularity for eking out earnings by gutting newsrooms. In February 2021, Tribune introduced that it had reached a deal to present Alden full possession and promote The Solar and two smaller Maryland publications to Mr. Bainum.

However the deal ran aground. Mr. Bainum then made bids for all of Tribune, together with a suggestion valuing the corporate at about $650 million during which he would put up $200 million of his personal cash. In Might 2021, shareholders voted to approve the sale of Tribune to Alden for roughly $630 million.

The failed try to purchase The Solar didn’t deter Mr. Bainum, who discovered himself energized by the considered establishing a nonprofit newsroom to serve the town. Mr. Bainum, the chairman of Choice Hotels International and a former Maryland state legislator, consulted with different nonprofit leaders and executives at main media firms to determine a mannequin that might work.

He labored with Ted Venetoulis, a former county govt and writer in Baltimore who had lengthy been attempting to purchase The Solar. They determined that the perfect shot was beginning with a large newsroom with the perfect expertise they might discover, as an alternative of constructing slowly.

Operating The Banner as a nonprofit would make it simpler to finance and to simply accept contributions, in addition to simpler to do partnerships with different nonprofits locally.

Mr. Venetoulis died in October at age 87. The nonprofit group that runs The Banner was named the Venetoulis Institute for Local Journalism in his reminiscence.

Mr. Bainum employed Kimi Yoshino, a high editor at The Los Angeles Occasions, as editor in chief. Ms. Yoshino moved to Baltimore in January. She mentioned the overwhelming majority of the journalists she had employed have been from Baltimore or Maryland, or had beforehand labored there.

Liz Bowie, a longtime schooling reporter for The Solar who was a part of the group that gained the Pulitzer Prize for native reporting in 2020, is without doubt one of the hires.

“I labored at The Solar for 35 years, my husband labored at The Solar, my mom labored at The Solar,” Ms. Bowie mentioned in an interview. “So I used to be actually dedicated to that establishment.”

However, she added, “I type of emotionally left The Solar” when shareholders voted to promote to Alden. Ms. Bowie joined The Banner this 12 months as one among its first reporters.

“I feel we’ll be capable of be bigger and we’ll cowl extra of the town as a result of the entire cash will go straight again into the journalism,” she mentioned.

Along with Ms. Bowie, The Banner has employed the reporters Justin Fenton, Tim Prudente and Pamela Wooden from The Solar. Mr. Fenton, an award-winning investigative reporter whose e-book a couple of corrupt Baltimore police unit, “We Personal This Metropolis,” was just lately was an HBO collection, had labored at The Solar for 17 years.

He mentioned that he had watched The Solar’s newsroom diminish to a shadow of its former self, when it had international bureaus and 300 reporters, and that he was excited by the considered constructing one thing new.

“Now we’re going face to face,” he mentioned. “Can this city maintain two massive information organizations?”

Imtiaz Patel, a former Dow Jones govt who’s the chief govt of The Banner, mentioned the working price range for the primary 12 months was about $15 million. He mentioned paid subscriptions could be about half the income combine, with promoting making up a couple of quarter and the remainder coming from issues like occasions and donations.

Readers can learn a sure variety of free articles a month earlier than a paid subscription is required. A subscription is $3.99 per week, or $155 for the 12 months.

Mr. Patel mentioned the purpose was to get to 100,000 paid subscribers to interrupt even and 5 million month-to-month distinctive views on the web site by 2025. He mentioned he needed to now not depend on funding from Mr. Bainum after just a few years.

Mr. Bainum mentioned the purpose was to construct a first-rate native information website for Baltimore and to determine whether or not it was a enterprise mannequin that will work elsewhere. However he additionally mentioned he wasn’t going to let the experiment final endlessly.

“If at 4 or 5 years that is only a black gap, then you recognize there are different locations to speculate philanthropically,” Mr. Bainum mentioned. “However I’m going to keep it up for 4 or 5 years anyway no less than.”

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