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 which 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 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 to 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 asked him if 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.
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…