Then again, Solomon has a history of bending the truth to his storyline. As a reporter for the AP and The Washington Post, he dug up his share of genuine dirt, but he also was notorious for massaging facts to conjure phantom scandals. In 2006, for instance, Solomon and fellow AP writer Sharon Theimer tried to tie now-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to disgraced super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The piece hinged on a series of meetings Reid had with Abramoff’s staff to discuss a pending minimum-wage bill and gifts from Abramoff associates who opposed several casino-expansion projects. What it failed to mention is that Reid stuck to his longstanding position on both issues—meaning that any implications of influence peddling were bogus. In response to a similarly flawed story, then-Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell later dubbed Solomon’s style “‘gotcha’ without the gotcha.” This magazine, too, has taken him to task more than once for distorting facts and hyping petty stories. Similarly, reporters who worked under Solomon as an editor—seven of whom were interviewed for this article—say he often pressured them to mold the truth to his vision of the story. “He had this sort of thesis or idea of what the story was,” says one Center staff member. “Facts be damned.”
Given his track record, perhaps it’s not surprising that Solomon’s big ideas for the Center haven’t panned out. Only about half of the $2 million that the Center was supposed to get as part of The Huffington Post merger ever materialized—never mind the 3 million pageviews a month. (Arianna Huffington says the $2 million figure was aspirational rather than a firm target, and never part of the formal merger agreement. As for traffic, she says Huffington Post only agreed to use “commercially reasonable efforts to cause at least 200,000 visits to the website per month”). Nor has the Center seen a flood of clicks from other sources. In fact, since Solomon’s departure, the Center’s traffic has plummeted from its peak of some 1.1 million pageviews a month to roughly 300,000, about what it was before the redesign. This is partly because Solomon is no longer there to push stories to sites like the Drudge Report that reliably stir up traffic stampedes—something he had a knack for doing—and partly because during Solomon’s tenure the site had been set to refresh every 5 minutes, which artificially inflated pageview numbers. When the refresh feature was rolled back, traffic dropped. As for the Center’s hopes of reaping a bounty of ad revenue: In all of 2011, the site sold just over $6,000 worth of advertising, most of it through so-called remnant networks.
The Center has since begun rolling back many elements of the business plan. Treesaver, the e-reader that was supposed to be the linchpin of the membership program, has been shelved. The website has been redesigned yet again. The iWatch brand is being phased out.
More importantly, the Center has backed away from the project at the heart of the new business model: remaking itself as a daily destination news site. While it will continue to publish a handful of original stories each week, the focus will return to partnering with outside news organizations to produce in-depth investigations.
The debacle has taken a toll. Last December, the Center announced a $2 million budget gap, and began slashing jobs. All told, it has shed more than a third of its staff—14 people have been laid off and five open positions eliminated—and eaten through $1.4 million of its reserves. One reason for the shortfall is a steep drop in foundation funding, a trend some insiders see as a side effect of the business plan. As one argued, “Why would foundations put up money for something every daily newspaper and most blogs are doing?” Another factor is the money the Center plowed into the venture. “We took our general operating support and invested it in the new business model, expecting it would bring a financial return,” Buzenberg explains. “That hasn’t happened.”