RIP Washington Times

The plot thickens. Or maybe it doesn’t. What is happening at the Washington Times seems a larger repeat of the demise a few years ago of the paper’s sister weekly publication, Insight magazine. With the latter, and without any outside industry advice or research, the management abruptly reduced publication frequency from weekly to fortnightly. There was no lead up to this switch, nor any marketing to accompany the change and to promote the new product. It was done in a rush and without planning.

There were two attempts by outside groups to buy the magazine but both sets of prospective buyers (one group wanted to purchase the paper also) found it impossible to kick start negotiations: they could find no one in authority to negotiate with. At the time one of the would-be negotiators told me that it was like “entering the twilight zone”. The biggest obstacle was to navigate through the old guard management Moonies (see previous post).

Even with the departure of that old guard, something similar would be seem to be happening again. Panic and family feuding has gripped the organization and no one seems ultimately in charge. The good news from the perspective of best practices is that an outside management group has been called in to assess the newspaper’s future.

The bad news is that at least one prospective buyer, I am told, can’t get into a position to have an actual conversation about buying the paper. Deja vu.

Should anyone think it worthwhile to buy it? The newspaper has a terrifyingly low daily circulation — under 70,000, and that includes some bulk sales. The web site is not doing badly under the editorship of Jeffrey Birnbaum and has a monthly audience of two million. The paper’s local sports coverage is good and DC local political coverage can sometimes see the Times pull out exclusives from right out under the noses of the rivals the Washington Post and Washington Examiner.

But any prospective buyer would have to take into account the following:

a) the paper’s advertising base has been hopeless from the start and has no serious classified section to fall back on at a time big advertisers are just not interested in buying ads in city newspapers;

b) the circulation base has now been virtually destroyed;

c) the primarily online Politico has moved into local DC city hall coverage and is doing well and securing a following, and, if smart (which the management there show all the signs of being), could now recruit almost an entire local sports team from the Times;

d) the paper has always been ill-positioned in a commercial sense — namely, being a conservative newspaper based in a heavily liberal city. It would have been better for the newspaper to focus on potential readers outside DC in Virginia and Maryland and to offer fully separate editions for both of those states. But it should have done that back in the 1990s and it is doubtful whether it would be worth doing now?

Again, from a commercial sense, there would be an opportunity for a Washington DC-based conservative publication to make a name for itself critiquing the Obama administration but the maths don’t seem to add up for a daily newspaper. And there is already a conservative opinion magazine based in DC. The only move that seems to make sense is to be exclusively online. But then who needs to buy the paper for that and to have to take on all the historical baggage of the name– it would be cheaper (and fresher) just to invent something new.

Solomon Out – Where Now for Washington Times?

Howard Kurtz over at the Washington Post interprets the executive shake-up at the Washington Times through the prism of the economic downturn, suggesting the “recession has proved so great as to apparently have touched even the Times.” And he quotes Don Meyer, the PR consultant the Times has brought in: “It’s safe to say that the conditions impacting a lot of publications have also impacted the Times, and perhaps more so.”

But I am not so sure the removal of Thomas P. McDevitt (president and publisher), Keith Cooperrider (chief financial officer), and Dong Moon Joo (chairman) should be seen through just the recession prism. As has so often been the case, the Washington Post is failing to appreciate the byzantine nature of the smaller across-town rival with all its cross-currents of old guard Moonies,  Moon family members, several different varieties of conservatives and some highly professional journalists struggling to win out and produce a newspaper.

For several years now the Washington Times board has been split between a group around Preston Moon, one of the founder’s sons, and old guard Moonies led by the Rev. Moon’s son-in-law, Dong Moon Joo. The Rev’s son at first wanted to sell the loss-making paper and to concentrate on video companies. Dong Moon Joo resisted but was out of favor with the Rev. as it became clearer that recent losses during his stewardship were much larger than had been revealed and that various commercial plans had no future.

The Rev., however, has a soft spot for the newspaper and wouldn’t endorse a sale, although he did agree to some negotiations: one involved Rupert Murdoch, who was asked to put in money, and another saw billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife make overtures, only to be told he would have to cough up all the historical losses made on the Times.

But the Rev. did agree to the downgrading of the son-in-law and an increase in control of his son, who was behind the replacement of long-time editor-in-chief Wes Pruden with John Solomon, an investigative journalist with the Washington Post.

Solomon has done a fine job with the Washington Times, bringing in some good journalists such as Jeffrey Birnbaum and Barbara Slavin to boost a staff that had seen the departures over the previous years of some talented writers and correspondents. The appointment of foreign editor David Jones to the managing editor slot was inspired: Jones is a highly professional journalists who was a news wire foreign correspondent for many years before joining the Times.

The paper under Solomon looked and read better: the opinion flood on to the news pages under Pruden was damned by Solomon. The web site was re-designed into an eye-catching product that had some useful interactive features and it quickly attracted a good monthly online audience of two million.

However, and here Kurtz is right, the recession and Internet conspired to wreck the daily newspaper’s circulation, down to under 70,000 daily. Something had to give, not so much because the subsidies would cease but because Hyun Jin Moon’s longer-term plan has been to improve the paper and its finances readying it for a sale the moment his 90-year-old father dies.

Solomon wasn’t a target in the shake-up — the old Moonie guard was. But Solomon maybe a victim. Hyun Jin Moon’s is bringing in management consultants, who, I am told, will have wide-ranging powers and the ability to undercut the authority of the editor-in-chief. It is this part of the shake-up that Solomon apparently, and understandably, objects to — hence his decision to think about his future.

Solomon’s departure would almost certainly see the resignations of several of the professionals he has recruited, leaving the paper in the editorial hands of some of the old guard conservatives and outside consultants. Not a pretty picture.

Nice To Know You Are Appreciated

Fifteen editors have been shown the door at the Baltimore Sun — part of the  Tribune Co’s cost-cutting measures. In the case of the fifteen they really were shown the door with security guards ready to escort them from the building.

I had sympathy for Sam Zell when he tried to explain a few months ago to the Tribune bureau in DC that they had too many reporters in the capital. I know that comment will make me unpopular among old media hacks. But the plain fact is that US newspapers have on the whole been overstaffed for years by comparison with UK and European papers — and please don’t tell me that the quality of the US publications is better (Not that I am saying that all European papers are superior to their US counterparts). I still think that the Tribune’s flagship paper in Chicago is over-staffed, even after the recent cuts there. After shedding 53 editorial positions, the news-gathering staff remains at 430. That is a huge number by comparison with the Daily Telegraph or The Times in London.

However, showing good staff the door in the way that happened today at the Sun is tacky.

But the question is why was the Sun not reformed and changed years ago. Of all the metropolitan papers in decline, the Sun has been the most extreme in terms of huge circulation losses and fall-off in advertising revenue. It was clearly heading for demise. And to be frank the paper was increasingly thin and unreadable and boring. It didn’t give you a sense of Baltimore nor of the rapid social and economic changes that have altered the face of the city. The Sun had poor leadership — as with many of the metropolitan newspapers it sat on its laurels and enjoyed its virtual monopoly. The managements of US newspapers have been lacking in vision and innovative thinking, as much as the managements of the US car companies.

What is doubly sad about Baltimore, though, is that belately it did have a challenger: the Baltimore Examiner, which was a zesty newspaper that was enjoying significant increases in advertising revenue. That paper was closed by its ownership in favour of keeping the Washington Examiner open, a paper that is finding it much harder than its sister did in drumming up advertising revenue and a publication that can’t hope to see off the Washington Post or undermine a revived Washington Times.