The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The battle for Tribune: Inside the campaign to find new owners for a legendary group of newspapers

Baltimore Sun reporters outside their building last month. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

Last year, as a group of Baltimore Sun reporters embarked on a long-shot endeavor to find a new owner that could save their paper from a hedge-fund takeover, a former Maryland politician gave them a piece of advice.

Treat this like a political campaign.

The worried reporters would need to recruit community allies. Hire a public relations firm to sway public opinion. And most crucially: Figure out how to find rich people who might be persuaded to finance a rescue plan.

That meeting over coffee with Ted Venetoulis — a former Baltimore County executive who unofficially advised Maryland’s largest private foundation — launched what would become the Save Our Sun campaign.

It would eventually inspire a national effort to keep nearly a dozen newspapers owned by the same chain from being bought by Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund with a singular reputation for gutting newsrooms.

Now, a coalition of wealthy business executives has put together an 11th-hour offer to buy not just the Baltimore Sun but the entire Tribune Publishing chain that a special committee of the Tribune’s board said Monday “would reasonably be expected” to beat out Alden’s offer. The all-cash proposal from Stewart Bainum Jr., chairman of Maryland-based Choice Hotels International, and Wyoming-based Swiss billionaire Hansjorg Wyss, is valued at $680 million, about $50 million more than Alden has proposed paying.

The duo then plans to sell many of the individual papers to local owners. Bainum is primarily interested in the Baltimore Sun, where he has told associates he wants to expand the newsroom. Wyss has told colleagues he plans to invest in the Chicago Tribune, according to an executive who is familiar with the discussions.

It's the culmination of years of despair from journalists and civic-minded organizers who have watched their local paper shrink under corporate consolidation and broader economic forces, only to be threatened by what to them seems like a death blow.

Alden could still prevail. But the counteroffer is the closest Tribune reporters have gotten to an alternative future.

Bainum is “the hero here if he pulls off the purchase, or perhaps, even if he doesn’t,” said Sun education reporter Liz Bowie, who helped form Save Our Sun.

But although millionaires and political insiders were crucial to the rescue plan, so too were the reporters who work at the threatened papers. “It’s going to be tough enough with the journalists on board,” said Venetoulis, once a publisher of now-shuttered regional newspapers. “Without them, it’s impossible.”

Like many U.S. newspapers, the Sun started as a locally owned business. The Abell family sold the newspaper after 149 years to the Times Mirror chain in 1986, which sold it in 2000 to the Tribune chain. They used their $500 million windfall to finance the Abell Foundation, focused on education, economic and environmental issues.

Bowie joined the Sun in the 1980s. It was there she met her husband, who worked for the now-shuttered Berlin bureau. Bowie's mother also worked for Baltimore’s old Evening Sun; a photo of her working the phones from that time is on Bowie’s desk.

She had seen what the Sun once was, how the newsroom shrank from more than 400 journalists to about 80. Whenever Bowie happened to interview Robert Embry, the president of the Abell Foundation, she would casually ask him whether he would like to buy the Sun.

In fact, Embry and other wealthy financiers did make bids to buy the newspaper over the years, but they always fell far short of what Tribune would sell for.

When Alden bought nearly a third of the Tribune stock in November 2019, Bowie felt she had two choices: leave, or try to do something about it.

Alden has been buying newspaper chains since the 2007-2008 financial crisis forced several into bankruptcy. The hedge fund tends to sell the papers’ real estate and make aggressive budget cuts. A high-profile newsroom revolt took place in 2018, when staffers at the Denver Post took over a section of the paper to protest Alden as a “vulture” from which the paper needed to be saved.

Heath Freeman is the hedge fund guy who says he wants to save local news. Somehow, no one’s buying it.

Bowie and her colleagues took a different tack. They had conversations with Embry and others who were also alarmed by Alden’s stock purchase.

“I had spent my whole life there,” Bowie said. “If I was going to leave, I was not going to leave before I had tried so hard to save this institution that had been so important in my life and I also felt was so important to the community.”

So on Feb. 20, 2020, a few weeks before the coronavirus pandemic shut down the world, Bowie and Sun reporters Lillian Reed and Scott Dance met in secret with Venetoulis at a Hyatt in downtown Baltimore.

“If this was Tribune threatening another layoff or something, I don’t know if it would have felt so horrific to us,” said Reed. “With Alden, it required us to become comfortable to be advocates for the paper.”

The group reconvened with reinforcements a couple weeks later, including Goldseker Foundation President Matt Gallagher, who cited the paper’s Pulitzer Prize last year for breaking a corruption scandal involving Baltimore’s now-former mayor that eventually landed her in federal prison for fraud. “It’s hard to put a price” on that kind of accountability work, he said.

And so they launched their campaign. A petition to return the Sun to local ownership and run it as a nonprofit organization received more than 6,000 signatures, including from CEOs and Baltimore cultural icons such as Cal Ripken and John Waters.

It was called “Save Our Sun” — or “SOS,” as Venetoulis quipped in an early meeting.

Journalists at other Tribune-owned newspapers made similar efforts, sometimes organizing on their own and sometimes with the help of unions. On June 30, 2020, 10 Tribune unions — which afford a level of job protection for employees speaking about working conditions — launched their own "Save Our" campaigns, and they now coordinate daily in a group chat labeled "Project Mayhem."

Studies show that cuts to local news lead to inflated city budgets, a reduction in civic engagement and polarized communities. The reporters’ pitch to the public: the only way to save their newspapers is by having local, civic-minded owners.

In Connecticut, Hartford Courant journalists found allies in the city council, which passed a resolution calling Alden a “destroyer of newspapers.” The state attorney general is also probing Alden about the possible takeover and state lawmakers are examining legislation that could punish Alden for making financial moves not “in the public interest.”

“In my mind, it was worth taking a shot, because the alternative is just that bad,” said Jen Sheehan, a reporter at the Morning Call in Allentown, Pa., where reporters hold reader forums and got backing from statewide elected leaders. “People are aware that hedge funds can be bad, but they don’t understand what Alden does to newspapers and why we’re so terrified.”

Jon Schleuss, president of the national NewsGuild union which funded the Sun’s PR push, said there was no precedent for this national campaign toward local ownership. “Many journalists who have just had enough are taking things into their own hands,” he said.

In Florida, Orlando Sentinel journalists emailed with would-be investors. And on Friday, the paper’s editorial board published a column citing its record of local reporting, urging local philanthropists to come forward and buy it, and comparing Alden’s history of newspaper ownership “to a biblical plague of locusts.”

Apart from the Guild-backed campaigns, two investigative reporters at the Chicago Tribune reached out to billionaires and financial advisers, and published an op-ed in the New York Times early last year, warning that Alden would leave behind “a ghost version” of the newspaper that can no longer carry out its essential watchdog mission. The column caught the attention of Wyss, the Swiss billionaire who would later join forces with Bainum.

“It’s one of those things that you can’t believe happened until it happened,” said Gary Marx, one of the authors.

In October 2020, Venetoulis organized a fundraiser for his childhood friend, Nancy Pelosi. He invited a businessman he had known for years: Bainum.

The two of them have previously discussed their mutual interest in media and Venetoulis’s long-standing effort to bring the Sun back to local ownership. This time, Venetoulis relayed his frustration at his and Embry’s recent failed $25 million effort to buy the Sun, and the campaign for local ownership.

Bainum put in his own offer two months after that conversation.

In February, he reached a nonbinding agreement with Alden: he would buy the Sun, the Capital Gazette and other Maryland publications for $65 million, and the newspapers would be run as nonprofit entities.

The talks with Alden soon hit a big roadblock over service agreement fees. So in March, Bainum told the Tribune board he wanted to outbid Alden and buy the entire company.

On Thursday, Bainum and Wyss submitted a proposal to buy Tribune and all of its newspapers for $18.50 per share, all cash, more than a dollar-a-share higher than Alden’s offer.

If the deal goes through, the Sun, the Chicago Tribune, the Courant and every other Tribune paper would transfer to Bainum’s Newslight group, which could in turn sell them to local owners and nonprofit groups. Two wealthy Florida business executives have already signaled interest.

But nothing is certain yet. The Tribune company’s board recommended selling to Alden several weeks ago, and it has yet to reverse that, despite its special committee projecting the Newslight group may have the better offer.

And the Newslight group still has to comb through all of Tribune’s financials to make sure it wants the chain. “There can be no assurance that the discussions with Newslight and its principals will result in a binding proposal,” the special committee told its shareholders Monday.

A final deal will have to be approved by Tribune shareholders.

Still, the three Sun reporters at that clandestine hotel meeting last year sometimes can’t believe everything that has happened since. “We’re journalists and we can be sort of cynical by nature,” said Reed. “But I do look back at how much we've accomplished in the past year and think — my gosh, we're doing it. It's working.”

Even if it all falls apart now, “we really succeeded by getting this far,” said Dance. “Because people are talking seriously about saving local journalism.”