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.

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.