Moonies Selling Washington Times
The Washington Times, which emerged during the Reagan administration as a feisty, conservative alternative to the Washington Post, is up for sale after the Unification Church pulled its $35 million annual subsidy. WaPo, naturally, has the story:
Washington Times executives are negotiating to sell the newspaper, after the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s family cut off most of the annual subsidy of about $35 million that has kept the Unification Church-backed paper afloat, company officials said.
Nicholas Chiaia, a member of the paper’s two-man board of directors and president of the church-supported United Press International wire service, confirmed that the paper is actively on the market: “We recently entered into discussions with a number of parties interested in either purchasing or partnering with the Washington Times,” he said in a statement to The Washington Post.
Current and former Times officials said one suitor has been the paper’s former executive editor, John Solomon, who resigned in November 2009. Soon thereafter, they said, Solomon organized a group of investors to purchase the Times or launch a new multimedia outlet called The Washington Guardian. Times company officials said they are also in discussions with other potential investors. Solomon, a former Washington Post reporter, declined to comment.
The negotiations follow months of turmoil at both the 28-year-old conservative daily and the business empire founded by Moon, 90, whose children are jostling for control over the church’s myriad enterprises, which range from fisheries to arms manufacturing.
One of Moon’s children, Justin Moon, who was chosen by his father to run many of the church’s Asian businesses, has slashed the newspaper’s annual subsidy, forcing the paper’s executives, led by Moon’s eldest son, Preston Moon, to search for deep pockets elsewhere. Meanwhile, the newspaper has hacked its newsroom staff by more than half, from 225 in 2002 down to about 70 people, raised the paper’s price and deliberately shrunk its circulation to cut costs, shed its metro and sports sections, and fired or pushed out several top executives, including its publisher earlier this week. Several reporters said most of the staffers are seeking to leave.
The finances are so tight that the newspaper hasn’t paid some of its bills or tended to basic maintenance issues — such as hiring an exterminator to deal with mice and snakes sneaking into the building on New York Avenue in Northeast.
“The feeling everyone feels is that it’s a totally rudderless ship,” said Julia Duin, the paper’s longtime religion reporter. “Nobody knows who’s running it. Is it the board of directors? We don’t know. There was a three-foot-long black snake in the main conference room the other day. We have snakes in the newsroom — the real live variety, at least. One of the security people gallantly removed it.”
Duin’s next words, “I have had it with these mother%#*ing snakes in this mother%#*ing newsroom!”
Former WaTi editor Stacy McCain isn’t surprised.
Back in the day, when Wes Pruden was editor, some people in the newsroom used to complain constantly about Mr. Pruden’s old-school ways. With Mr. Pruden, however, at least there was never any doubt who was in charge. I turned in my two-week notice two days after Mr. Pruden announced his retirement. At the time, some people thought my decision to leave was crazy, but that decision proved far wiser than the decision of other people to stay. A lot of those people have since been fired or laid off, and those few who still remain are stuck, as Julia says, aboard a “rudderless ship.”
Too many people fail to appreciate that the news business is, after all, a business. And the problems at the Washington Times chiefly represent a failure of management, especially on the business side — circulation, advertising, marketing, etc. But some people don’t understand that. Some people never really understand anything.
As Joe Gandelman notes, the paper’s “reporting was often solid — many of its original staffers came from the respected Washington Examiner, which had folded a year before the Times was launched — but it never was considered by most working journalists to be in the exactly the same class as the Post, New York Times or most other newspapers due to its huge church subsidy.” Ditto, the Moonie-owned UPI, which was every bit the AP’s equal in my memory.
The paper had some solid beat reporters and constantly broke major news. But it was never able to escape the shadow of Father Moon and his creepy cult. It was derisively known as The Moonie Times. It didn’t help, of course, that the paper was unabashedly conservative in an industry that was, at the time, very liberal. But the mass weddings and other oddities lessened the journalistic credibility of both the Times and UPI. Not to mention the sheer embarrassment of Republican politicians having to attend these things, pretending that Moon wasn’t a nut.
Three years ago, at Stacy’s kind invitation, I attended the Times’ 25th anniversary dinner. I refrained from blogging about it at the time out of deference to Stacy’s continued employment but it was one of the most surreal experiences of my life. The National Building Museum was packed to the gills with people, about half of whom were in traditional Korean costumes. The speakers, including former President George H.W. Bush, all paid homage to Moon as “Father Moon.” Then, after a longish interruption caused by a fire alarm — forcing us to evacuate the building for quite some time — we got to hear the final speech of the evening from Moon himself. Delivered in perfect Korean. So, after 25 years of running what he proudly billed as “America’s Newspaper,” he hadn’t bothered to learn America’s language. I joined several others in taking that as my exit cue.
There was a time when having the Moonies sell the paper to real newspapermen would have seemed a godsend. Now, though, I can’t imagine why anyone would want it. The Washington Examiner has taken it on in a competition to be the town’s conservative newspaper and won in convincing fashion, taking not only much of the WaTi readership but most of its best reporters. And Politico has become the niche “political” paper. Given that mass audience newspapers are a dying industry, I just don’t see what space is left.