Howard Kurtz in WaPo:
The Washington Times, which gained a strong foothold in a politically obsessed city as a conservative alternative to much of the mainstream media, is about to become a drastically smaller newspaper.
Nearly three decades after its founding by officials of the Unification Church, the Times said Wednesday it is laying off at least 40 percent of its staff and shifting mainly to free distribution.
In what amounts to a bid for survival, the company said the print edition will focus on its core strengths: politics, national security, investigative reporting and “cultural coverage based on traditional values.” That means the Times will end its run as a full-service newspaper, slashing its coverage of local news, sports and features.
The dramatic move is fueled by both internal church politics and a severe industry downturn that has forced a spate of big-city papers to shut down or declare bankruptcy. It represents a big bet on a digital future, with the Times attempting to chase a national audience while maintaining only a modest print presence in Washington.
The cutbacks are “very sad,” the company’s new president, Jonathan Slevin, said in an interview. At the same time, he said, “I see a very fine opportunity for the Washington Times to continue to advance the mission of the newspaper as an independent voice in the nation’s capital.”
Michael Calderone at Politico:
The notice was given to all 370 staffers to insure that the Times was compliant under the WARN Act, which according to the Dept. of Labor, requires “most employers with 100 or more employees to provide notification 60 calendar days in advance of plant closings and mass layoffs.”
So everyone remains in limbo until told that they’ll be staying on after 60 days. It’s expected that some staffers could be told very soon, with others informed either way later in the 60-day window.
A Times release went out after the meeting began that outlines some of the major changes taking place in the first quarter of 2010.
The news operation, according to the release, will focus on what it considers core strengths — “exclusive reporting and in-depth national political coverage, enterprise and investigative reporting, geo-strategic and national security news and cultural coverage based on traditional values.”
There will be “controlled-market local circulation,” with the local print edition free in certain areas of Washington with a premium price for home delivery. “No-cost distribution will focus on targeted audiences in branches of the federal government as well as at other key institutions,” the release said, although there will be single-copy sales in newspaper boxes and select retailers.
It’s been a tumultuous past month at the paper, and staffers were only informed of the meeting about an hour ahead of time in a one-line e-mail.
Justin Elliott at TPM:
Among the changes to be made gradually through 2010 are: free circulation to targeted groups, an expansion of the Times‘ theconservatives.com, more partnership with United Press International (UPI), which, like the Times, is owned by the Unification Church.
The turmoil at the Times, which was founded by church leader Rev. Sun Myung Moon, began when three executives were fired in early November. The resignation of top editor John Solomon was announced a few days later. Solomon and the fired execs haven’t been talking, but sources and reports point to a combination of Moon family politics and financial problems driving the chaos at the paper, which has long been subsidized by the Unification Church.
Adding to the trouble has been a very public set of allegations made by now-former editorial page editor Richard Miniter, who has accused the Times of religious discrimination and breach of contract.
John J. Miller at National Review:
The free-dropped newspaper is becoming a very crowded space in the nation’s capital. There’s the Washington Examiner, the Express (a condensed version of the Washington Post), Politico, The Hill, and Washington City Paper.
How many free papers can one person read? How many free papers can one city sustain?
Joe Strupp at Editor and Publisher:
Daily circulation had taken a hit in the recent Audit Bureau of Circulations FAS-FAX Report for the six months ending Sept. 30, dropping from 80,962 to 67,148 compared to the same period a year earlier. Slevin said circulation would be reduced further, but did not indicate by how much: “There is still some due diligence we need to do to determine what circulation will result in what advertising revenue.”
But he noted that “more than a simple majority will be no cost, it will be more than half, significantly more than half.”
News coverage will be altered, Slevin said, stating “the newsroom will be smaller and we will focus on our strengths, which are national security, national politics, geo-strategic areas and cultural coverage, in addition to the opinion pages and investigation.”
The overhaul announced this week follows a recent management shake-up in November that included the dismissal of former president and publisher Thomas McDevitt, chief financial officer Keith Cooperrider and chairman Dong Moon Joo, as well as the departure of Editor John Solomon.
Slevin said a new editor may not be appointed, citing the ability of the two current managing editors to run the newsroom. “We are going to have something that is not a traditional news structure,” Slevin said, noting the editor post “is not a spot that necessarily needs to be filled.”
During the upheaval some employees, specifically former Editorial Page Editor Richard Miniter, have claimed Times employees were forced to attend Unification Church religious events. Slevin declined to comment on the issue.
Overall, he called Wednesday a “bittersweet” day. “It was known that a good number of people will no longer be with us,” he said. “But the forward-looking part is that we have a plan by which the paper and the multimedia company will get better.”
UPDATE: Ray Gustini at The Atlantic