A 9/11 Memory

I was late talking my son to Takoma Park elementary school and was phoned by my foreign editor who said that in light of what had happened all editorial plans for the day were scrapped. Being the veteran I was I muttered, “Of course,” while wondering what the blazes he was on about. He asked me what I had heard and I said,”Bear with me, things are very fluid here and I need to make some more calls.”

The car radio in my old Fiat Spyder wasn’t working and I drove like the wind back to my home and switched on CNN in time to see the second plane strike the twin towers. I thought to myself, “Al Qaeda.” And then thought, “Life is going to be very different from now on.”

I then worked like fury. Business AM got a European press award for coverage that day. Much later in the day I toured the outside of the still-smoking Pentagon, had a drink on the way home in one of the few bars open in an eerily deserted DC and drafted in my mind my column for the Washington Times Corp. It was a plea not to throw out civil liberties in the fight against terrorism. Next day I tried to explain to my son about the bad people….

Keeping Options Open

So John Solomon apparently resigned more than a week ago. Presumably keeping it quiet was prompted by ongoing negotiations between Solomon and Washington Times management. But were the negotiations over the terms of what is quite clearly a forced departure — what my lawyer friends would call constructive dismissal — or over the future of the paper and its management?

I don’t see why the Times has employed an outside spokesman as he seems to say nothing. Certainly the Times is showing how crisis communications should not be done. But then they may not know the content of what they want to communicate. Not returning telephone calls and staying mum allows others to define, and Talking Points Memo is running with the story well.

Reading between the lines of what managing editor David Jones told the staff in an e-mail about what the management has said, the options are being kept open. They did not commit to keeping the paper per se but to maintaining a multi-media operation: and that could mean a web-site and Washington Times radio only.

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.