By August of 2010, the board’s executive committee had a draft plan in hand and had hired a Boston-based consulting firm called The Bridgespan Group, which specializes in nonprofit strategy, to vet it. Solomon and Buzenberg also began circulating the plan to their high-profile contacts, including Arianna Huffington. “Arianna read the business plan over the weekend on Geffen’s yacht in the Adriatic,” Solomon boasted in one email. “She loved it.”
At the same time, Solomon negotiated a merger between the Center and The Huffington Post Investigative Fund, a nonprofit arm of Huffington’s flagship site. As part of the deal, the Center would absorb the fund’s staff, including four reporters adept at juggling long projects and daily deadlines. Huffington, meanwhile, would raise at least $2 million for the Center to cover their salaries and expenses. According to Solomon’s emails, Huffington also agreed to drive 3 million pageviews per month to the Center’s website—more than tenfold what it was getting at the time.
The Huffington factor apparently helped persuade the board that the plan was workable—as did the $1.7 million Knight offered to fund the Center’s digital makeover. That fall, Bridgespan also delivered its report, which according to Buzenberg and board chairman Bruce Finzen, found the financial targets in the plan were most likely within reach. “The sense that the board got from the evaluation is that these were not pie-in-the-sky goals,” Finzen explains. “They were very realistic. This was a business plan that could work.”
Finally, on October 22—one day after the Center celebrated its 20th anniversary with a lavish $300-a-plate banquet—the board voted unanimously to embrace the new business model, which it branded Center 2.0.
Phase one of the plan consisted of several over-lapping pieces. First, instead of publishing a few dozen stories a year, the Center would transform itself into a destination news site, which reportedly would publish between 10 and 20 original stories each day. This was expected to create a surge in Web traffic, which the organization would parlay into a bounty of advertising. According to internal Center documents, the organization aimed to sell $635,000 in advertising (the Center called it “underwriting”) by year two. The plan also called for utilizing new cross-platform e-reader software, known as Treesaver, which would give digital stories the look and feel of magazine pieces, with multiple columns of text, lush graphics, and pages that flipped rather than scrolled. The idea was to offer access to this platform as a premium for an NPR-style membership. In the first year alone, the Center projected it would sell 50,000 memberships at $50 a piece, for a total of $2.5 million—a bold target, given that the largest membership-based news organization, Minnesota Public Radio, has only about 127,000 members, a base it took MPR decades to build.
The same week the plan was adopted, The Huffington Post Investigative Fund merger went through, and the Center’s staff surged to more than 50, making it the largest nonprofit investigative newsroom in the country. Among the newcomers were veteran investigative journalists, such as Fred Schulte, who has won a George Polk Award and is a four-time Pulitzer Prize finalist. At the same time, Solomon was appointed the Center’s first chief digital officer. He quickly set to work overhauling the website with the help of celebrity designer Roger Black. “We were thinking really big,” recalls Andrew Green, who was then the Center’s Web editor. “John was saying, ‘Put all your ideas on the table. Don’t worry about the money, don’t worry about the people, just tell us what you think will make this the best investigative journalism site in the country, and we’ll make it work.’”
Despite the influx of money and talent, not everyone embraced these changes. Many staffers worried that the new financial targets were wildly unrealistic, and that the turn toward daily journalism would squeeze out long-form investigations—something Buzenberg insisted wouldn’t happen.
The most outspoken critic was David Kaplan, a former chief investigative correspondent for US News & World Report, who had helped steer the Center through a rocky period following Charles Lewis’s departure and had since gone on to run the Center’s International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, or ICIJ. Kaplan says he worried that embracing what he called “Solomon’s dubious revenue-generating schemes” would tip the organization back into financial chaos, and that the demands of churning out multiple stories each day would make it all but impossible to do the kind of deep reporting the Center was founded to do—a grave loss to journalism as a whole. “This was one of the beacons on the hill in terms of investigative reporting,” he told me. “I didn’t want to see that compromised.”