Center for Public Integrity Retreats from Costly Experiment


July/August 2012; Source: Columbia Journalism Review

Founded by investigative journalism icon Chuck Lewis, the Center for Public Integrity is one of the most respected entities in the world of nonprofit journalism. The latest issue of the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), however, contains an article about John Solomon’s relationship with the Center and the disappointing results of their business dealings. Solomon used to be the executive editor of the Washington Times, the arch-conservative newspaper funded for a long time by the Unification Church of Rev. Sun Myung Moon. Solomon’s strategy was to put some bigtime razzle-dazzle into the Moonie paper, but that ended in the firing of much of the paper’s leadership and Solomon’s resignation.

According to Mariah Blake’s article in CJR, after the Times implosion, Solomon landed a six-month contract with the Center for Public Integrity and Solomon pitched a plan to remake the Center into “a daily destination that served up rapid-fire investigations on a variety of platforms,” an entrepreneurial vision for the Center that attracted its director, Bill Buzenberg. Solomon’s plan included estimates of annual gross revenues of $16.4 million.

The Center brought in the nonprofit consulting firm the Bridgespan Group to “vet” Solomon’s plan, and Solomon struck a deal to merge the Center with the Huffington Post’s Investigative Fund. Bridgespan liked the Solomon plan, the Center’s board liked the relationship with the Huffington Post, and Solomon’s plan—labeled “Center 2.0”—won the CPI board’s approval. Included in Center 2.0 was a plan to sell NPR-style memberships at $50 to 50,000 subscribers for access to a premium platform.

Solomon’s online version of the Center, called iWatch, was announced in April of 2011 and the Center began generating more and faster stories, though not in the numbers that Solomon’s plan had targeted. Solomon got into a conflict with other Center staff over a Center investigation of a black market in bluefin tuna. Then, abruptly, Solomon resigned.

Blake devotes much of her article to Solomon’s battles with the Center staff over the bluefin tuna series, but she notes that his business plan was falling apart at about the time he resigned. She reports that, “since Solomon’s departure, the Center’s traffic has plummeted from its peak of some 1.1 million pageviews a month to roughly 300,000, about what it was before the redesign.” She adds, “during Solomon’s tenure the site had been set to refresh every 5 minutes, which artificially inflated pageview numbers. When the refresh feature was rolled back, traffic dropped.” The projected revenues from the merger with the Huffington Post and various advertising sources never materialized either.

Without Solomon, the Center is retrenching, as iWatch and the premium membership program are being phased out. As of December, the Center showed a $2 million budget gap and had tapped $1.4 million of its reserves. According to Blake’s reporting, it lost some foundation support in the process.

Taking Blake’s article at face value and without commenting on the pros and cons of the bluefin tuna article brouhaha, there are several interesting aspects of this saga. Did people at the Center latch on to Solomon’s multimedia reinvention of the Center due to his entrepreneurial energy without fully assessing what might have been some of the shortcomings? How did the board of the Center and its Bridgespan Group consultants overshoot the economic and readership numbers by such a wide margin? Publishing is a very quirky business right now and many such experiments will misfire. The rest of us can learn from them but the losses incurred can in the meantime rock and risk some critical institutions in our midst.

.—Rick Cohen

  • John Sayles

    At least they tried something different. “Failure” can be a positive. Fail fast and fail big.

  • mb

    “Solomon used to be the executive editor of the Washington Times, the arch-conservative newspaper funded for a long time by the Unification Church of Rev. Sun Myung Moon.”

    The WT is still funded by the Moon organization as directed by Sun Myung Moon. For a short period during the Moon family infighting the cash from Japan to the paper was cut off. The Moon family’s operation has exploited the Japanese for decades – swindling them out of vast fortunes. The Japan cash has for decades funded all of Moon’s ventures – the NGOs, the “churches” themselves, and businesses, including the WT. The network of lawyers fighting these scammers in Japan total the claims at well over billion US and this amount, they say, represents less than one tenth the real damages to the people of Japan.

    But Moon ordered Doug Joo to buy back the paper from his(Moon’s) breakaway son. After that happened, the spigot of overseas cash returned and the organization’s intel asset* was back in the “Messiah’s” camp so it could return to what it does best – push the far right ideologies which have made the USA practically ungovernable.

    Anyone wanting to know what the Moon media is about, how he uses it to further his goals, I’d suggest they watch this.

    Solomon, btw, did a great job, as his predecessors at the WT, of telling people the paper was not “owned” by Sun Myung Moon, which is worse than misleading. Moon may not have his name on the paperwork but anyone who pays attention knows who has always been the force behind the WT, it is Mr. Moon. The egomaniacal, power hungry “messiah” wouldn’t have it any other way.

    *Moon himself has boasted about the intel the paper provides the organization.

  • Ben Shute, Jr,

    While noting that some of the big “brands” of the nonprofit world (including some foundations) blessed Solomon’s plans, one might also note that this week the Center and NPR have come out with an excellent, hard-hitting series on black lung disease. The journalism goes on.