The Center for Public Integrity, which was founded in 1989 by a fed-up former 60 Minutes producer (and current CJR contributing editor) named Charles Lewis, is famous for digging up dirt on influence-peddling and corruption. The writer Kevin Phillips once noted that no other organization had shined “so many probing flashlights into so many Washington dirty-laundry baskets.” Over the years, it has churned out more than 500 major investigations, won dozens of national prizes, and served up scores of scoops. It was the Center that first drew widespread attention to the Clinton White House’s habit of inviting donors for sleepovers in the Lincoln Bedroom, for instance. The organization also broke the news that the lion’s share of no-bid government contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan were going to a subsidiary of Halliburton.
But its transition to the digital era has been bumpy. This is partly because of internal struggles, and partly because it has been slow to adapt to the new-media ecosystem. To some degree, it has also fallen victim to the success of the approach it helped pioneer.
As commercial newsrooms have gutted their investigative units, many in the industry have turned to the nonprofit model that the Center adopted decades ago as their best hope of keeping investigative reporting alive. And dozens of new organizations have begun moving in on the Center’s turf. (In fact, since 2004, the number of nonprofit investigative newsrooms climbed from four to roughly 30.) Among them was ProPublica, which launched in 2008 and quickly leaped over the Center to become the nation’s top nonprofit investigative outfit.
This change in the competitive landscape did not escape the Center’s board and funders, and by early 2010, Buzenberg was under pressure to find a way to drag the organization forward. One sign of this was a 29-page report on the Center’s operations from one of its top donors, the John S. & James L. Knight Foundation. Knight found that while the Center had made important strides under Buzenberg’s leadership, many industry leaders still expressed “apprehension” about its direction and felt it “may be lagging” behind its competitors.
The report urged the Center to diversify its funding sources, up its digital game, and extend its reach by finding more attention-grabbing stories.
It was around this time that Solomon came on as the Center’s first journalist-in-residence. Solomon, who is charming and garrulous and brimming with swagger, spouts ideas faster than they can be scribbled on a pad. “He was so dynamic,” recalls Fran Perpich, the organization’s former underwriting and subscription sales director. “He brought such energy to the editorial meetings. You could feel the difference when he was there.”
Having spent most of his career at the AP, Solomon also had a knack for quickly churning out attention-grabbing stories. But it was his entrepreneurial ideas that most piqued Buzenberg’s interest.
In June 2010, Buzenberg asked Solomon to put those ideas in writing. What Solomon came back with was a radical blueprint for remaking the Center’s DNA: Instead of partnering mostly with outside news organizations to publish investigations that took months to report, the Center would reinvent itself as a daily destination that served up rapid-fire investigations on a variety of platforms—in other words, something similar to the digital daily project Solomon had envisioned launching on his own.
Buzenberg then asked Solomon to fly to California and present his plan to the board of directors. Later that month the board gathered at a Mexican restaurant in Santa Monica, and Solomon unfurled his vision. The initial reaction was stunned silence. “In all the speeches I’ve given, it was the most awkward moment I’ve ever had,” Solomon says. The following day, the board met again. After a volley of questions and some heated debate, the group requested a more detailed plan.
At this point, Solomon had Packard Media Group—a private company he and his partners had set up to try to buy The Washington Times—work up financial projections pro bono. One early iteration, provided by a former Center executive, shows how closely the vision mirrored the plan Solomon had tried to push through at the Times. Among other things, it included revenue from syndicated television and radio content, a weekly electronic magazine, and a daily e-edition—named The Weekly Guardian—and called for building an $80,000 television studio.
By year five, the document projected gross annual revenues of $16.4 million—a quarter of which would be paid in commission to Solomon’s private company, for advertising and subscription sales.
How exactly the vision evolved from there is murky, in part because the process was secretive—even most senior Center executives weren’t privy to the deliberations or the resulting plan. But both Solomon and Buzenberg say it was stripped down considerably. As Solomon puts it, “The plan exploded outward, then was winnowed back to reality.”