Bryan P. Sears//June 22, 2021
//June 22, 2021
Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman Tuesday pleaded with the new owners of the Capital Gazette to not gut the Annapolis paper, urging others in the community to “step up” and fund a competing publication.
Pittman’s comments came during a weekly meeting with reporters after he publicly released an open letter sent to the leadership of Alden Global Capital. The county executive has met with reporters weekly to update the public on the COVID-19 pandemic but said he was pushing that update down the agenda to address “something I actually think is a greater threat and importance to our community right now, which is the acquisition of our one local newspaper.”
“I’m not speaking out against the Capital newspaper,” Pittman told reporters. “I’m pleading with Alden Global Capital to preserve and protect this paper that they now own. I have to do it because nobody else is.”
It is unusual for elected officials to come to the defense of a media outlet. The first-term county executive acknowledged the paper had endorsed his Republican incumbent opponent in 2018. Pittman said he sent the letter in an attempt to get leaders at Alden to “think twice” about the future of the Annapolis paper specifically but newspapers more generally.
“I hope it not only helps to get Alden to think twice about the future of this paper and to work to build it – they certainly have the resources to do that — but that it gets others in communities and in the industry to think about the value of local papers and that when you cut expenses drastically and you lay off staff and you reduce the amount of coverage, and the quality, in some cases they have done basically leave the paper as some sort of an online operation, that you’re going to get blowback. It has a real impact on communities and we value these institutions.”
Alden Global Capital, which owned roughly one-third of the Tribune Publishing, recently completed a $630 million deal to purchase the media giant, which includes The Baltimore Sun, Capital-Gazette in Annapolis, the Carroll County Times as well as the Chicago Tribune, Hartford Courant and other newspapers.
The deal followed unsuccessful efforts by a group led by Stewart Bainum Jr., a former member of the House of Delegates and chairman of Choice International Hotels, to buy the papers in Maryland.
In the wake of Alden’s acquisition, buyouts were offered to employees in an effort to reduce costs and staffing. At least two employees — Rick Hutzell, the top editor at the paper, and reporter Chase Cook — are known to have accepted those offers.
Representatives for Tribune and Alden Global Capital did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The move by Alden, a hedge fund with a reputation for buying newspapers and then stripping them to improve cash flow, comes just as the paper and the community are approaching the third anniversary of a newsroom shooting that claimed the lives of four journalists — Gerald Fischman, John McNamara, Rob Hiaasen, Wendi Winters — and Rebecca Smith, a sales assistant at the paper.
The Capital-Gazette has deep roots in the community. The Annapolis Capital was founded by former Anne Arundel County Orphans Court Judge William Abbott in 1884. The Maryland Gazette traces its roots back to the early 1700s.
“I think that you have a hedge fund that is acting in a way that does not serve the public interest,” Pittman said. “They’re acting within the law so we can’t use the law but public opinion can matter and they care what their investors think.”
Pittman and the city plan on unveiling a memorial to the five slain employees next week.”
“It has five pillars to honor our fallen heroes and a large wall with the words of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution inscribed on it,” Pittman wrote in his letter to Alden. “We are calling it the Guardians of the First Amendment Memorial. It will inspire this community and all of its visitors to act in defense of a free and independent press, and to protect and preserve our local newspaper, whether the attacks come through the barrel of a gun or the greed of corporate raiders.”
One day after the monument is unveiled, arguments will begin in the sanity trial of Jarod Ramos, who pleaded guilty in the murders. Ramos held a grudge against the paper for its coverage of him involving a 2011 case in which he pleaded guilty to criminal harassment of a woman he first contacted on social media.
“If (Alden) won’t cooperate and if they choose to shrink, I guess would be the word, our newspaper to the point that it doesn’t have the value that it historically has, the alternative is for others in this community to step up and create an alternative,” Pittman told reporters. “I think if we don’t speak out in this moment, we’re giving up something that we value too easily and I think this community has to speak up and others across this country have to do the same who value democracy and the sense of community that local papers create.”