Too Late

Last week, the Washington Times management announced mass staff lay-offs – possibly nearly half of the 370-strong workforce – and what can only be described as a scatter-shot business plan.

According to a statement by President and Publisher Jonathan Slevin, the Washington Times will expand one of the paper’s online sites, continue its morning radio show through syndication with Talk Radio Network, distribute the paper free to target audiences and some federal government offices, partner with its moribund wire affiliate, United Press International, in photo and online sales. Home and office delivery will be offered at a premium price.

The paper said it will tighten its news operation by investing in its strengths, including reporting on politics, national security and “cultural coverage based on traditional values.”

Will this save the news company? I doubt it. There has always been a debilitating tension at the Washington Times between wanting to be a respected general news source on the one hand and on the other a drum-thumping opinionated conservative movement product. It could never pull off what the Wall Street Journal managed in the U.S. or the Daily Telegraph and The Times in London: balance consistently straight, professional news-reporting with a conservative editorial position.

That resulted partly in a long-drawn out talent exodus going back a decade. The company at various times has had some high talent – Major Garrett, Nancy Roman, Tod Lindberg, Helle Jensen, to name just four – but lost a lot of good reporters and editors either as result of the unresolved editorial-reporting dilemma at the paper or because it under-valued staff.

Now the strength of reporting in the fields earmarked by Slevin have been eroded. There is little to fall back on.

The recently departed Solomon attracted some new talent, improved news-writing, stemmed the flood of opinion on the news pages, overhauled the digital offerings of the paper and launched an excellent news site. Alas, it is not that site Slevin mentioned as the one the company wants to expand but a newer site which is unabashed in its conservatism.

The scatter-shot approach seems doomed to fail – the central dilemma between its news ambition and its overt conservative commitment remains unresolved and the way the company has treated Solomon and the new staff he attracted will make any recruitment of big talent very difficult. And the paper has never been skilled in nurturing and developing young writers and then keeping them.

Further, it is engaged in a crowded Washington DC market: not only has it to compete for sales and attention with the Washington Post but also with The Politico, which has blended well digital platforms with a hard-copy newspaper and has mixed in its line-up conservative writers with liberals and straight reporters. Add to that, the presence of the freebie Examiner, which has a conservative editorial position.

Aside from the lack of editorial and news space for the Washington Times, the company surely is living in a cloud-cuckoo land, if it thinks there is any profit to be had from partnering with United Press International. UPI is now a ghost – virtually the last of its staff was let go in the summer and it has no contracts with U.S. newspapers. It has been reduced to a tiny web-site being fed by youngsters who are paid a pittance to re-write copy from other news sources.

So, the radio show and a conservative news-site is what it will be reduced to and there is plenty of competition there. The company should be thinking in a different direction: purely digital and build off its ownership of two film companies in Washington DC to produce documentaries for online and cable sales.

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