Who Loves The Sun?
Local Group Tries To Take Daily Paper Back From Tribune Co.
Ted Venetoulis has bought and sold more newspapers than most people have read, sometimes at a profit, sometimes at a loss. His latest venture may prove to be his biggest gamble yet.
Venetoulis, a youthful septuagenarian who served as Baltimore County executive in the 1970s, is the point man for a group of local investors looking to buy The Sun back from the Chicago-based Tribune Co. The group includes Robert C. Embry, president of the Abell Foundation, philanthropist Walter Sondheim Jr., and, according to Venetoulis, some 20 other unnamed investors who would like to see The Sun returned to local ownership.
"Our hope is that we can restore it to the once great paper that it was," he says. "The newspaper world appears to be changing. . . . It's on some kind of precipice here, and where it goes--there's no new model. They're all experimenting. Hopefully we can benefit from some of this experimenting."
One experiment Venetoulis and his partners are watching closely is taking place at The Philadelphia Inquirer, where a group of local businessmen led by advertising executive Brian Tierney bought the paper, along with Philadelphia Daily News, earlier this year. Tierney was greeted with applause and Champagne on his first day, but the honeymoon between Inquirer staff and the new management appears to have been short lived. Amid contentious contract negotiations and talk of layoffs, the local newspaper guild last month began running political attack-ad style anti-Tierney commercials on the radio: "Brian Tierney: As a spin doctor, he tried to control what the Inquirer and Daily News should write, but as a publisher he wants to write our obituaries."
Newly installed Inquirer editor Bill Marimow, who was fired from The Sun three years ago after a painful series of newsroom cutbacks, told Editor and Publisher magazine that things were more dire at the Inquirer.
Venetoulis has been talking to Tierney, he says, and trying to learn from his mistakes. Chief among them, he says: Don't overpay, and get the unions on your side. He declined to say how much money was in play for The Sun. "We don't want to lay our cards on the table. It's not a good negotiating technique."
Tribune, for its part, is also playing it close to the vest. The company has recently become more known for the production of journalistic martyrs than journalism. Earlier this month, Los Angeles Times editor Dean Baquet drew a line in the sand against staff cutbacks at that paper, only to be shown the door, and talks of the company exploring the sale of some of its properties have sparked interest from local and national buyers. Tribune spokesman Gary Weitman says the company is reviewing its options but declines to comment on a possible sale of The Sun: "We aren't talking about anything involved with the strategic review process."
Venetoulis says the company has acknowledged his group's interest in The Sun and alerted shareholders, but it hasn't gone much beyond that. In order to make an offer, they need to know how much The Sun is worth, and for that they're waiting on financial information from Tribune. "They have not been forthcoming with that yet," he says. Venetoulis has also spoken with other potential Tribune buyers, a number of whom have told him they would be interested in talking to his group if they do acquire the company.
"If we got The Sun," he says, "it would probably be off of a ricochet--someone else buys the Tribune, then sells off some of the assets for cash to pay [back] what they paid for the Tribune."
"We've put a very formidable team of local people together," Venetoulis says. "All of whom know it's a risky venture. All of whom know it's a long shot. All of whom know--if we do get it--it's not the kind of return they would normally have, and all of whom know that if they're interested in pushing the paper around as an ideological goal they shouldn't get into it. That would ruin the paper as an entity, as a business."
"We're a long way from seeing how it turns out," says Bill Salganik, president of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild and a Sun reporter. "Their hearts are in the right place. If they can pull it off financially, it would seem to be a good thing."
Salganik says Venetoulis' group has met with the union and impressed them with talk of improving the quality of the paper and a hands-off management style.
Hands-off management is the key, Venetoulis says, although achieving it may be a challenge. The three public members of the group have a high profile in these parts. The Abell Foundation and Embry alone have made more than 50 appearances as news-makers this year in The Sun. Sondheim, who celebrated his 98th birthday this year, has had a hand in Baltimore history for the better part of a century--from desegregation of the public school system to the building of the Inner Harbor--and currently serves as a senior adviser to the Greater Baltimore Committee.
Venetoulis says the group has made it clear to everyone involved that "if you're interested in owning a piece of the paper to influence its direction or ideology, don't come in. . . . It isn't going to be easy by the way. I recognize that. But look, people are calling the paper now trying to influence it. It's the nature of the world. Part of our role [as potential owners] is to immunize the publisher and the staff from that kind of pressure.
"We've expressed that to everyone," he says. "And everyone's agreed to that."
Venetoulis' credentials as a local boy are impeccable. He grew up in East Baltimore, one of four siblings born to a Greek steelworker. Brother Nick changed his name to Venet and lit out for California, where he became a producer at Capitol Records and discovered acts including the Beach Boys and Lou Rawls. Venetoulis entered the political arena in the 1960s, inspired by John F. Kennedy. Their worlds would collide later, when Venet, in town for a civil-rights march, showed up at Venetoulis' house with a couple of friends in tow--Bobby Darin and Sammy Davis Jr.
Venetoulis managed political campaigns for, among others, William Donald Schaefer in his first bid for mayor of Baltimore. His childhood friend Nancy Pelosi has been making political waves recently as she takes over majority leadership of the U.S. House of Representatives, and Venetoulis remains close with her brother, Thomas D'Alesandro III, himself a former mayor. "People call us the Tom and Teddy show," Venetoulis offers.
Elected Baltimore County executive in 1974 as a reform candidate, Venetoulis served one term before making an unsuccessful run for governor in 1978. He lost the Democratic nomination to dark-horse candidate Harry Hughes, who had strong support from the editorial pages of The Sun and who went on to win the general election. The loss marked Venetoulis' retirement as a candidate, although he would make another stab at campaign management in 1993 as the campaign coordinator for Melvin "Mickey" Steinberg's bid to be Maryland governor. The pairing ended up in the courtroom after Steinberg fired Venetoulis, reportedly over financial irregularities, and Venetoulis sued for back wages. Today, Steinberg says, "We're friends, we worked things out," and says he's rooting for Venetoulis in his latest venture. "It would be great to have local ownership of the paper. I hope he's successful."
After Venetoulis' own gubernatorial campaign, "my peers decided I should enter a different line of work," he says. "So I found a different line of work."
The work he found was in publishing. Beginning with the Towson Times in 1978, he acquired the Baltimore Messenger, and The Jeffersonian, starting the Owings Mills Times along the way. Venetoulis notes with a certain irony that all the papers are owned today by The Sun.
In 1986 he sold the papers, made an unsuccessful bid to buy the now-defunct Baltimore News-American, and turned his attention westward, picking up the bankrupt San Francisco magazine at auction.
"We bought it to fix it up," Venetoulis says. "It was hard. It was tough, [but] that's the kind of thing I liked doing--taking something that's down and building it up."
Two years later, after some harsh response from critics and an infusion of cash from city businessmen, he sold the magazine. "I guess you can't win 'em all," Venetoulis says. "We sold it mostly so we wouldn't have to keep going out there."
In the meantime, Venetoulis had purchased the Silver Spring Record newspaper and an associated printing operation, this time with other partners, including Lanny Davis, who would later become President Clinton's special counsel to the White House. The Record was a small, family-owned affair in the burgeoning suburb of Washington. The partners bought other area weeklies before the company fell apart five years later, dissolving into lawsuits among the partners and bankruptcy for Venetoulis. Davis declined to comment for this article.
In 1996, Davis told The New York Times that "mistakes were made by all of us, but certainly by Ted and myself." Venetoulis said the failure of the company was due to the bank calling in loans.
"At that period of time . . . all the banks were going slap-happy," he says. "They called the loan, which was stupid, because the company was doing OK. And they forced us to shut down operations. We had four banks that had all been bought by somebody else, and they all had their ideas of what to do--you couldn't operate a business like that, but there was nothing we could do."
The newspapers were sold to The Washington Post and made part of their Gazette chain. The printing company was taken by the bank.
"That's part of business," Venetoulis says, "up and down."
More recently, business has been up. The Venetoulis-owned Corridor Inc. and Corridor Living magazines covering the business and lifestyle, respectively, of the area between Baltimore and Washington is doing well, he says, as is a publishing company specializing in tourist and chamber of commerce tabloids.
Of his latest venture, Venetoulis downplays his role. It's Embry and Sondheim who give it weight, he says; he's just the point man. He puts the odds of them getting The Sun at 70 to 30 against, but when they started he put it at 80 to 20.
"We'll see if this thing works, you know," he says. "You don't know. We've got to be careful our wishes--our hopes--aren't beyond the reality. It could get to the point where we've got everything lined up and the deal they want is too much, and you walk away from it. Boy, that's, that's like losing an election." He pauses, "but you've got to be able to do that. You can't make a bad deal."
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