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.”
Other members of Kaplan’s team also raised doubts, including ICIJ staff writer Kate Willson, who, according to internal Center emails, confronted Solomon about his potential financial interest in the business plan. In the end, the Center chose not to have Solomon’s firm handle advertising. Solomon says he never actually wanted the business—that Buzenberg offered him the account to try to entice him to stay, but that he declined because he found the arrangement “unseemly.” Buzenberg, on the other hand, says the deal was something Solomon was pushing, but that he and the board opposed it, citing “a conflict of interest.”
In early November of 2010, Solomon was promoted yet again, this time to executive editor. The same week, a new BBC documentary based on reporting by Kaplan’s team was screened at the offices of Pew Charitable Trusts. It was the kind of work the Center had built its name on—a seven-month cross-border investigation that exposed a multi-billion-dollar black market in bluefin tuna. This trend, fueled by illegal overfishing, was pushing the species toward collapse and upending ocean ecosystems. The documentary also revealed that the regulatory scheme created to tackle the problem was full of holes. In one scene, Willson, the lead project reporter, was shown sitting in a darkened room trolling through a largely blank International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) database. She explained that roughly 80 percent of the files are so riddled with gaps that it’s impossible to tell whether the fish were caught legally.
The day after the showing, Solomon began raising questions about the legality of accessing the ICCAT database without authorization, and the role of a paid consultant who had been quoted in the film. Kaplan argues this was simply Solomon’s way of retaliating. “He was clearly trying to discredit us because of the questions we had raised about the business plan,” he says. Buzenberg tried to settle the dispute by having Bill Kovach, a former Washington bureau chief for The New York Times and longtime Center board member, look into the matter. Kovach found that the reporting was “ethical, sound, and fully in the public interest.”