Later that month, Solomon returned from vacation to learn that the board had come out in support of the tuna series—and to find a $15,000 bonus check on his chair. He was livid. “It was hush money,” Solomon told me. “They were trying to buy my silence.” Buzenberg calls these allegations “preposterous and insulting” and says Solomon was given the bonus because he was carrying two titles—executive editor and chief digital officer—without extra pay. Around this time, Solomon also learned that the tuna series had been
nominated submitted for a Pulitzer Prize, and he threatened to inform the Pulitzer board about the alleged ethical blemishes unless it was withdrawn, which it was. Solomon then began pushing Buzenberg to rewrite the Center’s ethics rules, and fire or admonish several ICIJ reporters, including Willson. Buzenberg refused.
All the while, the Center plowed ahead with the new business model. A beta version of the new website, known as iWatch, was launched in April 2011. As expected, traffic surged; by the middle of that year, the number of monthly pageviews on the Center’s website climbed from around 300,000 to 1.13 million.*
On the journalism front, the shift toward the daily model brought both pluses and minuses. The Center’s coverage, which in the past had sometimes been plodding and in the weeds, became snappier and more timely. Occasionally, it broke news on fast-moving crises, like the Japanese nuclear meltdown. It was the Center (in partnership with ABC News) that broke the story at the heart of the Solyndra affair.
But the organization never managed to get out anywhere close to 10 stories a day, and many of the quick-turnaround pieces it did produce were closer to standard daily fare than genuine investigations. What’s more, by the time the new iWatch site was officially unveiled at the National Press Club on May 4 of last year, it was becoming clear that the targets pinned to the business plan were out of reach. Despite the surge in Web traffic, advertising was scarce. Meanwhile, the e-reader that the Center was counting on to bring in millions of dollars via memberships was hitting serious stumbling blocks. “Technologically, it never did what it was supposed to do,” Buzenberg says.
The same week as iWatch’s official launch, the Center’s plans were dealt another blow: Solomon tendered his resignation. Buzenberg sent out an upbeat memo saying, “We are a much stronger, more nimble news organization now as a result of John’s leadership… I am confident that the Center is now well-positioned to continue to execute our business strategy.”
It was also around this time that the bluefin tuna series landed two notable prizes: the Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors and the Whitman Bassow Award from the Overseas Press Club of America. The following November, representatives of roughly 50 countries that trade in bluefin tuna gathered in Turkey and agreed to overhaul the flawed system for tracking catches. The plunder of Atlantic bluefin was about to be reined in, thanks in part to Kaplan and his team’s reporting.
In February, I met Solomon at a sandwich shop in downtown Washington. It was a cool, cloudy morning, and the place was so quiet, you could hear the buzz of the refrigerator and the clattering of dishes in the kitchen. Solomon, who is tall and stocky with ruddy cheeks, was wearing a crisp pinstripe suit with a BlackBerry tucked in the breast pocket. He looked more like a K Street lobbyist than your average reporter, and his speech was sprinkled with the kind of business jargon that journalists tend to spurn.
When it came to the Center’s business plan, though, Solomon wasn’t keen on talking specifics, and somehow the conversation kept winding back to the controversy over the bluefin tuna series. At one point, he leaned in close and told me, “It was like watching Watergate.” When I asked why he had left the Center, he said it was because it had become clear that Buzenberg and the board weren’t going to take the “corrective action” he sought in the wake of the tuna ordeal. As for the timing of his departure, he said it was pure coincidence; his leaving had nothing to do with the unveiling of the iWatch site, the centerpiece of his foundering business plan.