Home | BaltimoreBrew.com
Media & Technologyby Fern Shen9:40 pmJan 16, 20240

Staffers react to their first meeting with Baltimore Sun’s new owner

David Smith says he hasn’t read the newspaper he purchased yesterday for decades. His plan for revamping the paper: Turn it into a clone of Fox45 news.

Above: Baltimore wakes up to snow and news that David Smith, of the right-wing Sinclair Broadcast Group, has purchased the Baltimore Sun. (Fern Shen)

Face to face with the broadcast media mogul who had just bought the newspaper they work for, Baltimore Sun employees heard him say repeatedly today that he doesn’t really engage with newspapers – and hasn’t read theirs until recently.

“He said very proudly, ‘I haven’t read the newspaper in 40 years,’” said one of about 50 staffers who assembled to hear from their new boss, David D. Smith, executive chairman of the Sinclair Broadcast Group.

“The most astonishing thing – he didn’t have the sensitivity to realize that this would be rather offensive and disturbing to us,” the staffer said, adding, “It begged the question: Why would somebody who never read the newspaper care about it or want to save it?”

Several meeting participants said that after the three-hour meeting at the Sun’s downtown Baltimore office, it was clear Smith’s intention is to make the news organization as much like Sinclair’s flagship television station, Fox45, as possible.

Sinclair Broadcast’s David Smith buys Baltimore Sun (1/15/24)

“He kept going on about the things he’s most proud of, their Project Baltimore series,” the staffer said, referring to a continuing series of reports aggressively targeting City Schools over test scores and classroom incidents, prompting school officials to lash back with accusations of “cherry picking” and misrepresented data.

Some in the meeting pushed back about Fox45, “about how they stir up fear and distort things, but he kept blowing it off. He doesn’t see it that way.”

“The public interest and money – that’s what drives me,” the staffer quoted Smith as saying.

Smith could not be reached for comment after the meeting.

According to the staffer, “He defined public interest as wanting to know what government is doing, and that sort of devolved to polls and online questions like, ‘What are you most afraid of? What concerns you?’ This is very familiar Fox fodder.”

Smith kept using the example of restaurants in describing his intentions, noting that he is a partner with his nephew, Alex Smith, the CEO of the Atlas Restaurant Group.

“He said people won’t show up at your restaurant if you don’t give them what they want.”

Sad Experience

The meeting was a sad and surreal experience, several Sun journalists said, the latest bit of ownership whiplash for a news organization that was purchased in 2021 by hedge-fund-turned-investment-firm, Alden Global Capital.

Younger reporters pushed back, pressing Smith about Sinclair’s alarming and well-documented “willingness to press the Smith family thumb on the political scale.”

(That was the phrasing in a link-rich article in NiemanLab that was making the rounds today titled, “The Baltimore Sun explores the question of whether there can be a worse newspaper owner than Alden Global Capital.”)

Leading off the article’s bullet points was coverage of Smith’s 2016 meeting with Donald Trump, in which he gave the candidate access to Sinclair reporters and said, “We are here to deliver your message, period.”)

Older reporters, meanwhile, “were kind of looking down and just kind of looked sick to their stomach.”

“You’re in the manufacturing business,” Smith told reporters.

Some of Smith’s reported remarks strained credulity.

He boasted about his success in buying the Sun where businessman (and now Baltimore Banner founder) Stewart Bainum failed because he was “willing to write the check,” asserting that the amount “was nine figures.”

Other remarks landed with a thud, including asking, “who wants to make more money?” and “who’s the best reporter here?” and informing the staff they “are in the manufacturing business.”

Asked about public service journalism aimed at covering people who live in disinvested communities, Smith gave what was described by one reporter as “a cavalier answer.”

“He said, ‘I can’t do anything about people who are a product of the Baltimore city school system; people who are, you know, a product of the Baltimore city lifestyle.’”

Sports? He said he wasn’t interested in it though he knew readers are. Doesn’t the paper have a duty to cover cultural institutions like the Baltimore Museum of Art? Not if readers aren’t interested, he reportedly replied.

Asked whether he plans a move toward hyperlocal neighborhood coverage, he responded, “Nobody cares about a tree falling on a car unless it’s on your block.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Sanya Kamidi describes her interaction with David Smith at the meeting. (@skamidi)

Baltimore Sun reporter Sanya Kamidi describes her interaction with David Smith at the meeting. (@skamidi)

Owning the Libs

Smith told the employees that he doesn’t trust any politician “as if to prove to us or reassure us that he was not political,” a staffer said.

“To my mind, that is not a neutral perspective. That’s an agenda, and I think clearly there is a political agenda.”

Smith spoke proudly of the 2022 term limits referendum he funded in Baltimore with $500,000 and got passed, and boasted about a “left-wing” TV station he bought that was last in its local market, saying that after he steered coverage to the political right, it soared to the leading position.

“For this very rich man, it is a trophy to have this annoying liberal publication all his own.”

“My firm belief is that when you tell people what’s happening they are more likely to do something about it – vote,” he reportedly said.

Straining to understand the motivations of the paper’s new owner, the staffer was struck by Smith’s mention that “some of his friends and people who hate the Sun and think it’s a liberal rag were thrilled that he bought it and now want to subscribe.”

“For this very rich man, it is a trophy to have this annoying liberal publication all his own.”

Most Popular