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.”
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.