Stewart Bainum was a novice to the news business when his name first emerged earlier this year as a would-be savior.
Bainum’s months-long effort fell short — but he ended it, he said at the time, with a renewed conviction “that a better model for local news is both possible and necessary.”
Now he’s putting that belief to the test. Bainum has hired Kimi Yoshino, a top editor from the Los Angeles Times, to help him launch the Baltimore Banner, a nonprofit digital upstart dedicated to local coverage of the city, and committed $50 million of his own fortune to get it started.
The plan, Bainum said, is not to compete with the Sun but to cover the news in a city that he said has more than enough for one outlet. “Those reporters have their hands tied behind their back, and they’re still doing a good job,” he said, noting the Sun won a Pulitzer in 2020 for investigating corruption in the mayor’s office. “There’s a lot of damn talent there. And we just want to add to it.”
Yoshino, a California native who has spent 21 years at the Times and is currently one of its managing editors, told The Washington Post it took “something very special to make me leave two places that I love.” The Times endured some of the same budget cuts that have afflicted the Sun during the years that it, too, was owned by Tribune before finding a measure of stability under the new ownership of billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong.
“I’ve lived through — and survived — bad newspaper ownership and a bad boss,” she said. “The L.A. Times still has work to do on its path toward sustainability, but it’s absolutely headed in the right direction … I can’t think of a more important challenge right now than figuring out a way to make local journalism sustainable.”
The Banner name is a reference to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” written by Francis Scott Key in Baltimore after the British unsuccessfully attempted to penetrate the city’s Fort McHenry in the War of 1812.
The lofty name comes with a lofty budget: $15 million for its first year, with a plan to hire roughly 50 reporters. But Bainum says it will be essential that the Banner find outside revenue to support it beyond his initial investment. He said he expects the publication will be able to draw from subscriptions, a limited amount of advertising, philanthropic donations and, eventually, fees from events or e-commerce.
Yoshino said that while she hasn’t determined specific beats yet, she expects the Banner will cover city hall, education, criminal justice and inequality in addition to providing more “service” coverage. The Banner will also cover sports, culture and food.
Throughout the process of conceiving the Banner and selecting an editor, Bainum and his key deputy, Wall Street Journal veteran Imtiaz Patel, consulted widely with news leaders across the country, including those at digital start-ups such as Denver’s Colorado Sun and Memphis’s Daily Memphian, as well as nonprofit journalism leaders at the Texas Tribune and ProPublica to explore different journalism models.
Patel, who will serve as CEO and publisher of the Banner, stressed that the organization has focused first on building its business operation — his earliest hires were in areas like marketing, subscriptions and technology — so the journalists have a strong commercial institution to step into. Many other media start-ups, he said, are “a bunch of journalists trying to figure out what to do with subscriptions.”
The Banner is also receiving support from the nonprofit Lenfest Institute for Journalism, which owns the Philadelphia Inquirer.
“Wealthy, first-time owners are sometimes surprised by the business challenges of their new media ventures,” said Jim Friedlich, Lenfest’s executive director and CEO. “Launching a successful new local news brand almost always takes longer than its founders hope or expect.” Bainum, by contrast, has his “eyes wide open. He has been studying the challenges facing local news for several years now and is committed to invest meaningfully and patiently.”
Bainum will be chairman of the board. The Banner will exist under the umbrella of the nonprofit Venetoulis Institute for Local Journalism, named for Bainum’s old friend and former Baltimore county executive Ted Venetoulis.
Venetoulis had first approached Bainum about launching a digital news operation in 2015, and Bainum turned him down. But when Venetoulis tried again in 2020, Bainum was more receptive, and their discussion launched the months-long effort to buy the Sun from Tribune, and eventually to try to keep Tribune out of the hands of Alden Global Capital.
Venetoulis died suddenly this month just as Bainum was preparing to announce his new nonprofit, prompting Bainum to name it in his honor.
Bainum’s other boosters include David Simon, a former Baltimore Sun reporter who created the HBO hit “The Wire.” Simon has committed to write a monthly column for the Banner. Billionaire publisher and former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg has also offered guidance and expertise.
“The talented team Stewart is assembling reflects his deep commitment to Baltimore, and I’m looking forward to reading their work — and seeing the positive impact they will have on the life of the city,” Bloomberg said in a statement.
Bloomberg has not committed to donating funds to the institute, according to Patel, but that is partly because “we haven’t asked.”
Among the media leaders Bainum and Patel conferred with was Norm Pearlstine, former top editor of the Los Angeles Times, who recommended Yoshino, according to Bainum: “He was very high on her.”
Yoshino was among the pool of candidates considered to replace Pearlstine, a position that went earlier this year to Kevin Merida, formerly of The Washington Post and ESPN’s the Undefeated.
Yoshino first talked to Bainum over Zoom one Saturday in September. The call was scheduled to be one hour; the two talked for nearly three, Bainum said. He interviewed eight or nine candidates for the role, whittled down from an initial list of nearly 150 people. “She was our first choice the whole time,” he said.
She said she was drawn to the opportunity because Baltimore “is such a dynamic place facing so many challenges, and I think our journalism can really help improve the community.” And “Stewart is so committed to trying to figure this out.”
Still, Yoshino said she “has a lot to learn” about Baltimore and plans to start her new role in December by researching the city and hiring a team. There is no launch date for the publication, but rather an initial goal to start publishing in the first half of the year.
The Banner is targeting a goal of 100,000 subscribers to break even; the greater Baltimore region has a population of about 2.5 million.
“We haven’t sold one subscription,” Bainum said. “And nobody knows our brand. So that’s the task a start-up has. It’s going to be a challenge.”
He recalled his years in the Maryland General Assembly in the late 1970s and the early 1980s, when there were six major papers on the State House beat; Maureen Dowd, now a Pulitzer-winning New York Times columnist, was a cub reporter for the now-defunct Washington Star.
“There was always someone in local government being incarcerated back then,” Bainum said, bemoaning the shortage of attention on such state and local government today. “Who knows what shenanigans are going on now?”