When John Solomon took over as executive editor of The Washington Times in 2008, the conservative daily had long been propped up on subsidies from the Unification Church and its self-proclaimed messiah, the Reverend Sun Myung Moon. But Solomon believed he had hit on a formula that would bring in an abundance of profits: Invest in deep reporting, then pump the content his staff dredged up to audiences through multiple revenue-generating channels. “The idea is to create a four-dimensional product with multiple revenue streams,” Solomon told me. “You put them all together, and you can build a business model as good as any in 20th-century journalism.”
With this in mind, Solomon set about turning the stodgy old paper into a multimedia lab. He tossed aside its quirky ideological stylebook, which, among other things, called for putting “gay marriage” in scare quotes, and beefed up investigative and political reporting. He also overhauled the Times’s website, making it slicker and more interactive; launched a daily wire service; and added a weekly magazine to the lineup. To make way for its foray into broadcast, he had a new television studio built in the paper’s Washington DC headquarters and brokered a deal with Talk Radio Network to launch a syndicated three-hour morning-drive radio news program, which he dubbed the “60 Minutes of radio.”
By mid 2009, Solomon and the business staff were laying plans for a raft of other bold schemes, among them a syndicated hourly radio newscast, a weekly television magazine, a newswire based in Central Asia, and an interactive opinion website called The Conservatives. The idea, Solomon said, was to allow the “Joe the Plumbers of the world to speak up to major thinkers, like Newt Gingrich.”
Before most of these projects could get off the ground, however, a feud erupted in the Moon family and the spigot was suddenly shut off, leaving the paper scrambling to pay its bills. Then, in early November of that year, the Times’s publisher, chief financial officer, and chairman were summarily fired, and armed guards turned up in the executive suite. Solomon, meanwhile, quietly disappeared from the newsroom, much to the alarm of his rank and file, who were struggling to make sense of the chaos. A few days later, they received a curt email announcing his resignation. Come December, the entire staff was summoned to the ballroom; roughly half of them were handed letters saying their jobs had been cut. Former religion reporter Julia Duin, who had been out of town when the bomb dropped, recalls returning to a sea of ransacked desks littered with crumpled notebooks and overturned phones. “Whole swaths of the newsroom were decimated,” she says.
Over the next few months, the ruthless cuts continued, and the paper was reduced to a flimsy string of wire copy. Inside headquarters, bills stacked up, basic maintenance went untended, and vermin began roaming the halls—at one point, according to The Washington Post, a three-foot blacksnake was spotted slithering through the newsroom.
Solomon was nevertheless determined to see his vision through. So he assembled a team of investors and began negotiating with the Moon family to buy the paper, which the team tentatively planned to rename The Washington Guardian. When the talks collapsed, Solomon started laying plans to launch a new investigative digital daily under that name instead. Once again, the idea was to deliver scoops through multiple revenue-generating channels.
To earn some money while he was trying to get the project off the ground, Solomon took what was supposed to be a six-month post at the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity, one of the nation’s oldest and largest nonprofit investigative journalism outfits. Before stepping to the helm of the Times, Solomon had worked as an investigative reporter for The Washington Post and The Associated Press, and the Center job was supposed to put him back in the reporting trenches.
But he quickly started picking up management duties alongside his reporting. Before long, he also had caught the ear of the Center’s executive director, a lanky, bespectacled public-radio veteran named Bill Buzenberg, with his ideas for turning deep reporting into a lucrative enterprise. Neither man was quite prepared for the events they soon set in motion.