I did something last week that I never thought I would do, acting impulsively but correctly. Life is not static.
I cancelled my subscription to the Baltimore Sun, a newspaper that I have read for 70 years. Its new owner, David D. Smith, executive chair of the Sinclair Broadcast Group, revealed in a testy meeting a week ago with the Sun’s reporting staff that he had not read a newspaper for 40 years. In recent months, as he was planning to buy the Sun, the Annapolis Capital, the Carroll Times, the Towson Times and other publications in the Baltimore area, he read the flagship paper four times.
He bought the papers for what he described as a nine-figure sum (likely $100 million of his personal fortune). A local owner, known for his blunt, opinionated style, told the staff that he did not trust what little he reads in newspapers. He said that the paper, which won a Pulitzer Prize for unearthing nefarious actions by former Mayor Catherine Pugh, was insufficiently engaged in ferreting out corruption in Baltimore City.
I have written previously about my despair over the demise of local print journalism, as symbolized by the closing of more than 1,500 community papers nationwide. Towns and cities have lost a critical aspect of democracy. Absent information about local government, elected officials escape public accountability.
Sunshine has no outlet.
Corruption can be an ugly consequence. Citizens are unaware. Rumor is the conduit for news. Communities suffer from an alarming lack of reliable information.
Smith told reporters and editors that they ought to conduct polling to determine what readers want to read. He envisions reporters as catering to the public by writing poll-driven articles, thus increasing readership in Smith’s opinion and drawing more profit.
Smith’s politics are decidedly conservative. Some years ago, Sinclair’s nearly 200 TV stations were ordered to run the same piece bemoaning “fake news.” Under his leadership, his media empire became a mouthpiece for the erratic president at the time. It was top-down direction at its worst.
Though I read five digital publications, along with a few magazines, I simply crave to be informed. I care little about the editorial tilt. I seek objectivity, if that is humanly possible. I eschew publications unabashedly offering a political slant. That said, I do read numerous opinion pieces, including ones advocating conservative perspectives.
Unless I am totally mistaken, the 186-year-old Baltimore Sun will never be the same. It already is a shrunken version of what it once was when it operated foreign offices throughout the world. At one time, it was considered an excellent regional newspaper. It lost its luster among ownership changes and rounds of staff cuts,
I refuse to subscribe to a newspaper owned by a person who publicly has denigrated print media. I refuse to watch a paper devolve into a political mouthpiece for an uninformed owner. In time we will learn if he dictates coverage and content. His co-owner, Armstrong Williams, a conservative columnist and owner of TV stations, seemingly does not share Smith’s dislike of print media.
I will miss the Sun’s coverage of political machinations in our state capital of Annapolis. I will miss its sports reporting. I will miss its connection to the city where I was raised and educated through high school. And, finally, I will miss the obituaries, another link to Baltimore.
It might seem easy to go online and cancel a subscription. Just a few clicks, right? Wrong. A local newspaper is a trusted source of valuable information. An old friend no longer is part of my life.
Sad turn of events. Papers can die from poor leadership, not just loss of subscriptions and advertising revenue.
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. After 44 years in Easton, Howard and his wife, Liz, moved in November 2020 to Annapolis, where they live with Toby, a King Charles Cavalier Spaniel who has no regal bearing, just a mellow, enticing disposition.