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.
Later on, Solomon began throwing out new allegations about the tuna series. He insisted, for instance, that Mielgo had been quoted in the BBC documentary without revealing that he was a paid consultant. But when I watched the video, I discovered this charge was untrue: Mielgo is billed as a consultant “for the fishing industry, environmental groups—and for the ICIJ.” When the conversation turned to his tenure at The Washington Times, Solomon rambled excitedly about the success of the paper’s digital makeover. “Traffic soared,” he noted. “It went up 600 percent!” *
In fact, according to four current and former Times officials, the paper’s aging readership found the site trying to navigate, and traffic plunged. Traffic did rise with the unveiling of the news site, which unlike the old one was regularly updated throughout the day. But the site was unpopular among staff and readers, and would be redesigned again in 2010. As for the other grandiose revenue-generating schemes Solomon launched at the paper, they ended up being money losers—a fact that four current and former Times officials (two of whom had direct access to financial data) say contributed to its precipitous decline. “Because of his initiatives, the paper almost failed,” says Jerry Seper, the Times’s longtime editor of investigations. “John Solomon put the paper into a near-death spiral.”