When John Solomon took over as executive editor of The Washington Times in 2008, the conservative daily had long been propped up on subsidies from the Unification Church and its self-proclaimed messiah, the Reverend Sun Myung Moon. But Solomon believed he had hit on a formula that would bring in an abundance of profits: Invest in deep reporting, then pump the content his staff dredged up to audiences through multiple revenue-generating channels. “The idea is to create a four-dimensional product with multiple revenue streams,” Solomon told me. “You put them all together, and you can build a business model as good as any in 20th-century journalism.”
With this in mind, Solomon set about turning the stodgy old paper into a multimedia lab. He tossed aside its quirky ideological stylebook, which, among other things, called for putting “gay marriage” in scare quotes, and beefed up investigative and political reporting. He also overhauled the Times’s website, making it slicker and more interactive; launched a daily wire service; and added a weekly magazine to the lineup. To make way for its foray into broadcast, he had a new television studio built in the paper’s Washington DC headquarters and brokered a deal with Talk Radio Network to launch a syndicated three-hour morning-drive radio news program, which he dubbed the “60 Minutes of radio.”
By mid 2009, Solomon and the business staff were laying plans for a raft of other bold schemes, among them a syndicated hourly radio newscast, a weekly television magazine, a newswire based in Central Asia, and an interactive opinion website called The Conservatives. The idea, Solomon said, was to allow the “Joe the Plumbers of the world to speak up to major thinkers, like Newt Gingrich.”
Before most of these projects could get off the ground, however, a feud erupted in the Moon family and the spigot was suddenly shut off, leaving the paper scrambling to pay its bills. Then, in early November of that year, the Times’s publisher, chief financial officer, and chairman were summarily fired, and armed guards turned up in the executive suite. Solomon, meanwhile, quietly disappeared from the newsroom, much to the alarm of his rank and file, who were struggling to make sense of the chaos. A few days later, they received a curt email announcing his resignation. Come December, the entire staff was summoned to the ballroom; roughly half of them were handed letters saying their jobs had been cut. Former religion reporter Julia Duin, who had been out of town when the bomb dropped, recalls returning to a sea of ransacked desks littered with crumpled notebooks and overturned phones. “Whole swaths of the newsroom were decimated,” she says.
Over the next few months, the ruthless cuts continued, and the paper was reduced to a flimsy string of wire copy. Inside headquarters, bills stacked up, basic maintenance went untended, and vermin began roaming the halls—at one point, according to The Washington Post, a three-foot blacksnake was spotted slithering through the newsroom.
Solomon was nevertheless determined to see his vision through. So he assembled a team of investors and began negotiating with the Moon family to buy the paper, which the team tentatively planned to rename The Washington Guardian. When the talks collapsed, Solomon started laying plans to launch a new investigative digital daily under that name instead. Once again, the idea was to deliver scoops through multiple revenue-generating channels.
To earn some money while he was trying to get the project off the ground, Solomon took what was supposed to be a six-month post at the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity, one of the nation’s oldest and largest nonprofit investigative journalism outfits. Before stepping to the helm of the Times, Solomon had worked as an investigative reporter for The Washington Post and The Associated Press, and the Center job was supposed to put him back in the reporting trenches.
But he quickly started picking up management duties alongside his reporting. Before long, he also had caught the ear of the Center’s executive director, a lanky, bespectacled public-radio veteran named Bill Buzenberg, with his ideas for turning deep reporting into a lucrative enterprise. Neither man was quite prepared for the events they soon set in motion.
The Center for Public Integrity, which was founded in 1989 by a fed-up former 60 Minutes producer (and current CJR contributing editor) named Charles Lewis, is famous for digging up dirt on influence-peddling and corruption. The writer Kevin Phillips once noted that no other organization had shined “so many probing flashlights into so many Washington dirty-laundry baskets.” Over the years, it has churned out more than 500 major investigations, won dozens of national prizes, and served up scores of scoops. It was the Center that first drew widespread attention to the Clinton White House’s habit of inviting donors for sleepovers in the Lincoln Bedroom, for instance. The organization also broke the news that the lion’s share of no-bid government contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan were going to a subsidiary of Halliburton.
But its transition to the digital era has been bumpy. This is partly because of internal struggles, and partly because it has been slow to adapt to the new-media ecosystem. To some degree, it has also fallen victim to the success of the approach it helped pioneer.
As commercial newsrooms have gutted their investigative units, many in the industry have turned to the nonprofit model that the Center adopted decades ago as their best hope of keeping investigative reporting alive. And dozens of new organizations have begun moving in on the Center’s turf. (In fact, since 2004, the number of nonprofit investigative newsrooms climbed from four to roughly 30.) Among them was ProPublica, which launched in 2008 and quickly leaped over the Center to become the nation’s top nonprofit investigative outfit.
This change in the competitive landscape did not escape the Center’s board and funders, and by early 2010, Buzenberg was under pressure to find a way to drag the organization forward. One sign of this was a 29-page report on the Center’s operations from one of its top donors, the John S. & James L. Knight Foundation. Knight found that while the Center had made important strides under Buzenberg’s leadership, many industry leaders still expressed “apprehension” about its direction and felt it “may be lagging” behind its competitors.
The report urged the Center to diversify its funding sources, up its digital game, and extend its reach by finding more attention-grabbing stories.
It was around this time that Solomon came on as the Center’s first journalist-in-residence. Solomon, who is charming and garrulous and brimming with swagger, spouts ideas faster than they can be scribbled on a pad. “He was so dynamic,” recalls Fran Perpich, the organization’s former underwriting and subscription sales director. “He brought such energy to the editorial meetings. You could feel the difference when he was there.”
Having spent most of his career at the AP, Solomon also had a knack for quickly churning out attention-grabbing stories. But it was his entrepreneurial ideas that most piqued Buzenberg’s interest.
In June 2010, Buzenberg asked Solomon to put those ideas in writing. What Solomon came back with was a radical blueprint for remaking the Center’s DNA: Instead of partnering mostly with outside news organizations to publish investigations that took months to report, the Center would reinvent itself as a daily destination that served up rapid-fire investigations on a variety of platforms—in other words, something similar to the digital daily project Solomon had envisioned launching on his own.
Buzenberg then asked Solomon to fly to California and present his plan to the board of directors. Later that month the board gathered at a Mexican restaurant in Santa Monica, and Solomon unfurled his vision. The initial reaction was stunned silence. “In all the speeches I’ve given, it was the most awkward moment I’ve ever had,” Solomon says. The following day, the board met again. After a volley of questions and some heated debate, the group requested a more detailed plan.
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.
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.”
But Solomon wasn’t satisfied that the legal questions had been answered. So he went over Buzenberg’s head—directly to the chair of the board. The board, in turn, hired the media law firm Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz to investigate how Kaplan’s team got the database password and whether using it broke any laws. After this, the simmering tension between Solomon and Kaplan burgeoned into full-scale warfare, and fierce shouting matches began erupting in the newsroom. As Solomon puts it, “Everything went nuclear.”
By late December, the outside lawyers completed their investigation. What they found, according to internal Center documents, was that the reporters had initially gotten the password—along with a downloaded version of the database—from the paid consultant who appeared in the documentary, a Spanish fishing-industry analyst named Roberto Mielgo Bregazzi. Solomon seized on this as proof that Kaplan’s team had resorted to checkbook journalism. “We hacked into a government database with a password we paid for,” he told me. “You can’t do that and call yourself the Center for Public Integrity.” But the reality is not so black and white. Mielgo, who had initially been an unpaid source, was only brought on as a consultant several months after the password changed hands. Obviously, putting a former source on payroll raises questions about motives. But the reporters on the team gave a reasonable explanation for this move: They had relied heavily on Mielgo to help unravel the political and technical complexities of the tuna-fishing industry and guide them to sources in hard-to-penetrate countries like Libya. At some point, it became clear that he was spending a substantial amount of his time responding to their queries.
As for the legality of using the password to access data, the lawyers concluded that, in theory, a prosecutor might argue it violated the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. But whether it actually did was open to debate. And, in any case, it was highly unlikely that charges would ever be brought.
At this point, the board was apparently satisfied that Kaplan’s team hadn’t made any flagrant missteps. In January 2011, it issued a statement saying, “The board recognizes the outstanding reporting done by ICIJ members: the quality of the reporting, including the bluefin tuna series, remains above question and beyond doubt.” Kaplan, meanwhile, stepped down. As he explained in a memo to the board, he didn’t feel he could go on reporting to Solomon, “given his reprehensible conduct toward ICIJ staff.”
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.
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.”
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.”
Buzenberg insists that, in some ways at least, the bold experiment has paid off: The organization has become more digitally savvy and nimble in its reporting. “The Center for Public Integrity makes no apology for being ambitious and investing in a new business model to create additional revenue streams,” he says. “This is a period of tremendous transition, change, and opportunity in the news business—and no news organization has come up with all the answers.”
Solomon, meanwhile, has continued along the same path. After leaving the Center, he was hired as editor of news and investigations for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. But he resigned abruptly in January, and has since rededicated himself to launching a new digital daily called The Washington Guardian. “It’s an investigative news project—something like Jack Anderson would do if he were still alive,” Solomon explains. He adds that it will be both “platform agnostic” and “revenue agnostic,” meaning he’ll wrap the content in any package he thinks will sell, be it syndicated television programming or ebooks. Based on what he’s hearing from potential advertisers and syndications partners, he says he’s optimistic that the project will not only make money, but cut a path to a new business model as lucrative as the one that sustained modern journalism in its heyday. “A lot of people believe the industry is in the midst of this terrible Darwinian downsizing,” Solomon notes. “I, for one, am intent on proving that the best days of journalism are ahead.”
If history is any guide, that means it’s time to run for cover.
Corrections: Re: The Washington Times—Several sources told CJR that the redesigned website was unpopular with the Times’s aging readership, but CJR misinterpreted their statements to mean that this had caused the paper to lose traffic. In fact, prior to Solomon’s arrival the paper had only a basic site that was rarely updated, and with the introduction of the new site—which posted stories regularly and was aggressively promoted—traffic rose. The site was redesigned again in 2010, after which traffic (which had fallen sharply after the 2009 shakeup) rose steeply.
Re: The Center for Public Integrity—In the phrase “the number of pageviews on the Center’s website rose from around 300,000 to 1.13 million” the word “monthly” was omitted before “pageviews.” Also, CPI’s tuna series was “submitted” for a Pulitzer prize rather than “nominated”; the people who run the Pulitzers prefer to reserve the word “nominated” for entries that the judges pick as finalists, which is not the case here. CJR regrets the errors.