Last Wednesday, Stewart Bainum, a part-time Talbot County resident and chair of Choice Hotels, announced that the ailing condition of local journalism in Baltimore will receive much-needed resuscitation with the creation of the news site, the Baltimore Banner. He will invest $50 million in this non-profit digital publication.
Think of The Talbot Spy and Chestertown Spy on steroids, with reporters galore covering not just Baltimore but Maryland news. While Bainum said that the Banner—named after The Star-Spangled Banner, our national anthem written originally as a poem by Francis Scott Key during the barrage of British Navy artillery on Baltimore’s Fort McHenry in the War of 1812–will not compete with the struggling Baltimore Sun, it certainly will provide a well-funded alternative.
Subscriptions, advertising revenue, philanthropic donations and special events will undergird the new journalistic player.
News that Bainum, who tried unsuccessfully to buy the Baltimore Sun, as well as its parent, Tribune Publishing, some months ago, would establish a digital news site thrilled me. I have written frequently in this space bemoaning the demise of local news. I have grieved the impact of fewer well-staffed local newspapers on civic engagement and political accountability.
With no, or at least reduced journalistic oversight, public officials can and do make decisions harmful to the general good. Mischief and misdemeanors proliferate. Taxpayer money can be misspent. Friends and supporters may benefit. The citizenry is unaware and uninformed, sadly so.
Bainum already has hired a top-flight editor from the Los Angeles. He is dead serious about giving democracy in our region a shot in the arm. As many of us have changed our reading habits from reading a tactile newspaper to looking at our iPhone, iPad and laptop for news, we no longer consider a digital publication an alien creation.
The popularity of Talbot and Chestertown “spies” illustrates the reading public’s hunger for local news. We want information from a responsible conveyor of news. Life on a news desert lacks vibrancy and connectivity; we then must rely on word-of-mouth communication colored by rumor and factual deficiency.
Bainum deserves praise for investing in an enterprise that may yield little financial return. He is a businessperson who strives for profit. Now his goal is different: seek a product that delivers news and information responsibly to a public starving for both. This business model has worked successfully in the form of the Texas Tribune, Denver’s Colorado Sun and ProPublica.
Community support will be critical, particularly donations. Bainum’s financial fortune is not endless. Digital news sites require funding. Well-paid reporters and editors are the lifeblood of credible journalism. The public demands factual news coverage and balanced commentary.
I have written before of my belief that the provision of local news is akin to a municipal utility that supplies electricity, gas, solar power and internet service to a community. Life without this vital infrastructure is rather bleak. The same can be said about a town or city or county or region without access to local news.
A community devoid of news about matters important to its citizens suffers from a dangerous lack of engagement. The glue that unites—or even disturbs or energizes—a community no longer exists. More than 1,500 communities in the United States have lost invaluable connectivity and connectedness.
Some months ago, a Washington Post columnist opined that wealthy people had an obligation to rescue dying newspapers and give them life through a large infusion of money. Inundated with requests for support, the rich have philanthropic priorities. Many do not feel the same urgency as Bainum.
Stewart Bainum has stepped up to provide an alternative news source to the Baltimore region . This legacy newspaper is suffering now from ownership by a hedge fund, Alden Global Capital, which based on its recent history is unconcerned about content.
Bainum is enabling Maryland’s largest city to have quality news coverage. He is performing a community service.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.