The Montgomery County businessman whose nonprofit is poised to acquire The Baltimore Sun and its affiliated newspapers is worried democracy is eroding and believes building a successful nonprofit news model could help stem that tide, according to friends and colleagues who know him.
Tribune Publishing announced Tuesday that it had reached a deal to sell the company, including the Chicago Tribune and New York Daily News, to Alden Global Capital for $630 million. But as part of the deal, Alden signed a “nonbinding term sheet” to sell The Sun to a nonprofit institute established last month by Stewart Bainum Jr.
With Bainum’s backing, the Sunlight for All Institute would pay $65 million for Baltimore Sun Media, according to a Tribune Publishing filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. The institute also would assume the pension obligations of The Sun and its affiliates.
Bainum’s deal for The Sun is contingent on Alden’s for Tribune Publishing, which still needs the approval of shareholders and federal regulators. If it goes through, the institute would acquire The Sun at the same time Alden purchases Tribune Publishing, between April and June, according to the SEC filing.
Bainum (pronounced BAY-num) is a former Democratic state lawmaker who served in the General Assembly from 1979 to 1986, holding seats in the House and Senate, and once planned a run for governor. He has kept a lower profile since his last run for public office more than 25 years ago, focused on family, business and philanthropy.
Baltimore entrepreneur Mike Rosenbaum has known Bainum since 2014 when the Bainum family invested in his second business, Arena, which licenses technology that helps organizations reduce implicit bias in their choices. Rosenbaum said Bainum is worried that the news industry’s decadeslong loss of jobs and outlets has damaged the country.
“One of the things that’s really important to Stewart is the strength of the democracy. I think he views journalism as a foundation of that,” Rosenbaum said. In Bainum’s view, he said, American democracy and society need journalism to “more than survive.”
The news business, long reliant on advertising to pay the bills, has been reeling since the advent of the internet and social media started a steady erosion of its key revenue source.
Efforts to reach Bainum on Wednesday were unsuccessful at his residences and through Choice Hotels International, a business founded by his father and where Bainum is chairman. Those who have spoken with him say he is restricted from discussing his plans now because of a nondisclosure agreement signed as part of the pending deal with Alden, which also could not be reached for comment.
But Rosenbaum said he expects Bainum will approach the news business the same way he did the hotel or nursing home industry: Grow quickly.
“You need to invest in it to really make it fly and thrive,” Rosenbaum said. The Sun could be “a model of robust journalism that can be copied elsewhere.”
Jim Friedlich, executive director and CEO of the Philadelphia-based Lenfest Institute for Journalism, which owns the Philadelphia Inquirer, first met Bainum over a Zoom video call last November. The nonprofit Lenfest Institute awarded $7 million in grants to Philadelphia news outlets in 2020 and is helping nonprofit newsrooms develop new business models.
Bainum told Friedlich he had started thinking about acquiring The Sun in May and had come seeking advice.
“He listens quite well and does not lead with his ego,” Friedlich said by email. Bainum asked ”smart questions. Savvy business questions about the local news industry, the search for a sustainable digital business model (with a key focus on digital subscriptions), the advantages but also the limits of the nonprofit model.”
Applying a sports metaphor, Friedlich said he spoke to Bainum as “friends on the court” and is not being paid for his advice.
“I have a strong sense of his business [judgment] which seems sound, sober, and savvy,” Friedlich said. “We did not discuss news matters, which I took as a good sign.”
Brenda Jews, a former chair of Notre Dame of Maryland University’s board of trustees, first met Bainum in the late 1990s when she was an administrator at Washington, D.C.’s private Maret School, where Bainum’s two sons attended, and Bainum served on the board. Jews’ husband, William, serves on the board of Choice Hotels.
Behind the scenes, Jews saw Bainum “quite frankly, getting things done.”
Listening to and appreciating the ideas of others was a core value of Bainum’s, she said, and he was concerned about the direct and indirect effect of decisions.
“He is taking notes,” Jews said. “He’ll take that input and put it all together.”
Leonard Lucchi, a lobbyist who was on Bainum’s staff in the House of Delegates and has maintained a longtime friendship with him, said Bainum dug into the details while serving on the House Ways and Means and Senate Budget and Taxation committees.
“He had a big impact on state tax policy and the budget by bearing down into the weeds,” Lucchi said.
Lucchi anticipates a similar data-driven approach to making a nonprofit model work for local journalism.
“I expect him to be at first hands-on and then bring in people who are the experts on making a news outfit work in the 21st century,” Lucchi said. “He’s talked about that for a long time and had an interest in it as he’s watched the industry evolve — or devolve.”
Tim Maloney was elected to the House of Delegates the same day as Bainum — their districts were adjacent in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties — and they have remained close.
Several times Bainum took unpopular political stances, Maloney said. First, Bainum supported a bill that would have removed a tax exemption from Montgomery County’s exclusive Burning Tree Club because the club didn’t allow women to become members. When legislation stalled, Bainum enlisted his sister, Barbara, in a lawsuit. A judge ruled in their favor in 1984, ending the tax break.
“What Stewart did was not fashionable,” Maloney said. “Some people thought he was a traitor to his class.”
In the late 1990s, Maloney said, Bainum argued against a state tax cut that would have saved him millions. Bainum is methodical and avoids “extraneous ideological fights.”
“He’s not going to take a flier. He’s not going to be part of a venture he doesn’t think can be successful,” Maloney said.
How Bainum’s politics may affect the operations of The Sun is unknown.
Bainum is a large supporter of the Maryland Democratic Party and is deemed a “silver trustee” for his financial support of the party. He and his wife, Sandy Bainum, a singer and actress, donated at least $5 million to Democratic political causes — candidates, political action committees and other groups — between 2016 and 2020, including more than $3 million to help President Joe Biden defeat Donald Trump, according to Blue Tent, a Democrat-aligned online political news site.
“He is somebody who understood the importance of giving and good policy through his philanthropy,” said Yvette Lewis, the state party chairperson.
Lewis began her first stint as party chairperson a decade ago, and “we bonded almost instantly. I was telling him I was a singer, and his wife is a singer. That was a fun icebreaker.
“I think he’s a good man with a good heart, and that will come through in what he’s trying to do.”
Because of Bainum’s background in Democratic politics, “I urge him to ensure the paper does not have a political agenda,” said state House Minority Leader Nic Kipke, an Anne Arundel County Republican.
“People of all political philosophies need a news source that they can trust and that respects all political views,” Kipke said. “If he does this, I believe the paper could experience much greater success and fill a vital role in our community.”
The Morning Sun
Rosenbaum, the Baltimore business associate, said he didn’t think Bainum would try to exert influence over the paper’s coverage given the plan to turn it over to a nonprofit.
“If what Stewart wanted was to imbue his political views in the paper, he’d just buy it himself,” he said.
Sandy Banisky, a journalism professor at the University of Maryland, College Park and former editor at The Sun, said the organization would need to build “an old-fashioned firewall” to separate Bainum from newsroom decisions.
“That was the model at The Sun,” Banisky said.
Often the publisher would get a phone call from someone unhappy with the paper’s coverage, but those complaints never made it to the newsroom, she said.
Banisky said a town hall or public statement could be an effective way for Bainum to establish a relationship and expectations with the community and the newsroom.
“Here’s what’s going to stay the same, what’s going to be different and here’s what our goals are,” she said. “In the age of social media, that’s what the public is accustomed to.”