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Hotel mogul Stewart Bainum Jr. plunges into local news business

Bainum in The Baltimore Banner newsroom in downtown Baltimore. Photo by Ben Tankersley

The view of the Inner Harbor is spectacular from the Fells Point conference room in the fourth-floor offices of The Baltimore Banner, the news nonprofit that Stewart Bainum Jr. hopes will shift the very foundation of how local journalism is conducted and consumed in this country. But Bainum, the Montgomery County hotel magnate and philanthropist who founded the enterprise and has committed to bankrolling it to the tune of $50 million, isn’t gazing out the window and admiring the gleaming National Aquarium or the iconic Domino Sugars sign in the distance. Rather, he’s looking inward, contemplating a future for his startup, for which there is no blueprint. 

Born and raised in Takoma Park, Bainum, 76, resides in Chevy Chase. He is chairman of the board of directors for Rockville-based Choice Hotels International. With more than 7,000 hotels, representing nearly 570,000 rooms in more than 40 countries and territories, it’s one of the biggest hotel franchisors in the world. 

“My day job,” jokes Bainum, who also is chairman of Artis Senior Living, an owner-operator of Memory Care Assisted Living residences in 11 states. 

Lately his considerable energy and intellect have been focused on Baltimore, where he hopes the Banner, which offers some free content but charges readers a monthly fee to read the meat of it, can become a model for how to revive vanishing local news coverage. Since 2005, the U.S. has lost more than a quarter of its newspapers (2,500) and is on track to lose a third by 2025, according to a Local News Initiative report by the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

“I have to believe that people in a democracy want to know what the hell is going on in their community. And they need to know, certainly,” Bainum says. “There’s no map for what we’re trying to do. We have to experiment left and right and go down a number of dead ends and turn around and try another route.”

Taking risks is nothing new for the Bainum family. His father rose from humble beginnings to found a successful company focused on hotel franchising and nursing and assisted living facilities. When Stewart Jr. took over as CEO in 1987, he helped increase its revenues from millions of dollars to billions. A former state representative and senator who represented District 20 in Montgomery County, Bainum over time became concerned with the dwindling news coverage in Annapolis and in county council chambers and city board rooms throughout the state. After a failed attempt to obtain The Baltimore Sun, he made a bid to buy the newspaper’s parent company, Tribune Publishing. When that fell short as well, he pivoted and created The Venetoulis Institute for Local Journalism, which oversees the Banner. (It’s named for his late friend, former Baltimore County Executive Ted Venetoulis, who was a passionate advocate for robust local media coverage.) 

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