The peripatetic John Solomon explains his move from the Center for Public Integrity to Newsweek/The Daily Beast. Posted: Tue, May 31, 2011
By Greg Masters
John Solomon speaks very quickly, with the kind of rapid-fire delivery one might associate more with a hard-hitting detective than a reporter.
Greg Masters (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an AJR editorial assistant.
Little wonder: the 44-year-old investigative journalist comes from a long line of cops; his father is still a police chief in his home state of Connecticut, and his brother is a detective. "I always wanted to be the writer and the storyteller, and take all of their great investigative instincts but adapt it to journalism," Solomon says. "I remember my father jokingly saying, 'Oh, my God, don't become a reporter. Become a mortician, a garbageman, a janitor, but God, not a reporter!'"
Solomon, one of Tina Brown's prized new recruits at Newsweek/The Daily Beast, hastens to add, "My dad has supported me throughout my career." It's a career that in the past four years, at least has taken many twists and turns.
Solomon spent 20 years with the Associated Press, starting out in Milwaukee in 1987 before transferring to Washington, D.C., in 1992. Then, in 2007, he became a national investigative reporter at the Washington Post. One year later, he was offered the position of executive editor at the Washington Times. He took the helm of the conservative paper at the beginning of 2008, only to resign in the fall of 2009 when a feud broke out among the family ownership.
That year, he started his own media company Packard Media Group LLC devoted to multiplatform investigative journalism. And in 2010, he joined the Center for Public Integrity, becoming executive editor and helping the 22-year-old nonprofit investigative news organization develop a new Web site and business strategy.
Now, Solomon is leaving the center to become editor of news and investigations at Newsweek and The Daily Beast, which announced their merger in November. The job, which Solomon will begin on June 13, is "an extraordinary opportunity to essentially be part of a 21st century media startup," he says. "It just happens to have the benefit of two extraordinarily strong news brands."
The Daily Beast, a Web site devoted to news, commentary and entertainment, was created in 2008 by magazine editor and author Tina Brown and the Internet company InterActiveCorp. Time magazine named it among the 50 best Web sites of 2010, calling it "a must-read for any serious news consumer." In the merger announcement, Brown said, "I see Newsweek and the Beast as a marriage between Newsweek's journalistic depth and the vibrant versatility The Daily Beast has realized on the Web." The Daily Beast is a mix of original material and content aggregated from elsewhere.
Brown is editor-in-chief of the new venture, called The Newsweek Daily Beast Company. Solomon says he will work directly with Brown to "break the type of news that ultimately will drive the next day's agenda." That means writing "great yarns, the sort of stories that will garner the cover of Newsweek," and being "part of a great team there to facilitate a forward-leaning, enterprising, scoopy newsroom," he says.
"My whole career I've prided myself on leaning forward in journalism, trying to break the next big story, not covering commodity news or leaning backwards into yesterday's news," Solomon says. "Tina is an exciting and dynamic figure who really aspires and has already driven Newsweek and The Daily Beast to break the next day's big stories early, not cover the old news from yesterday."
Cheerful and voluble, Solomon has no time for doom-and-gloom pronouncements about the state of journalism. "In so many parts of the profession, it feels like the white flag of surrender has been raised, and that there's sort of an inevitable acceptance that media will be a shrunken, less profitable business. And I have never subscribed to that." In Brown and the rest of the leadership at Newsweek/The Daily Beast, Solomon says he found "a group of people who truly, honestly believe that journalism's best days are ahead of it, not behind it." Taking over a struggling news brand, Newsweek, the late Sidney Harman "wanted to show that it could be revived and made vibrant and relevant to the 21st century," Solomon says.
He bases his optimism on his own experiments with new journalism models. Joint collaborations, for example, have characterized much of his work in recent years. At the Post, he worked with CBS' "60 Minutes" to produce an award-winning series on a discredited FBI forensic tool used for decades to convict hundreds of people. At the Times, he and his news team worked with ABC News on a series about the recruitment of veterans to test drugs linked to suicide; that series won the Society of Professional Journalists' 2009 National Public Service Award. Projects like these showed that two journalism organizations working together could "create better journalism than working apart," Solomon says. "That joint collaboration is, I think, a model that makes journalism stronger in the future."
"He's a very collaborative guy," says Carrie Johnson, who worked with Solomon at the Post. They teamed up again early last year, when Solomon was a freelance journalist, for a Post investigation of FBI phone record searches. Johnson, who is now NPR's justice correspondent, says of Solomon, "He's a total sparkplug. He has more energy than anyone I've worked with. And he seems to know everyone in Washington."
At the Times, Solomon launched several multiplatform initiatives such as a daily talk-radio show and a TV division for producing twice-daily newscasts that he says increased Web traffic and revenue. "A lot of people were fascinated by what the team at the Washington Times was able to do," he says. Among those intrigued, presumably, was Brown, who invited Solomon to coffee last fall to exchange ideas on future directions in journalism before offering him a job. Brown declined to be interviewed for this article.
Solomon left the Center for Public Integrity on May 27, just as the organization finished implementing a business strategy that he helped conceive and put into action. It has a new Web site, iWatchNews.org, a daily digital newspaper and a new business model based on earning revenue through advertising and memberships.
"We will miss John's many talents as a journalist, editor and digital/web guru. But I believe what we will miss the most is John's incredible vision and tireless energy," wrote Bruce Finzen, chairman of the center's board of directors, in a note to the center's board and staff on Solomon's last day.
Bill Buzenberg, the center's executive director, wrote in an e-mail interview, "There are no other words to describe John than as a 'dynamo' or a 'force of nature' he combines tremendous energy with a steady flow of great ideas." He says Solomon "gleans an amazing number of good story ideas just on his way into work each morning" and "has more sources in Washington than any one journalist I know."
Solomon says he leaves the center in "an extraordinarily good position," with "a great strategy, a great technological base, a great funding base, incredible journalists." And thanks to a deal he negotiated, Newsweek/The Daily Beast will partner with the center to distribute some of its investigative stories. "I am certain that the center is going to thrive," he says.
Through all of his career moves, Solomon says he has held onto some basic ideas about what constitutes great journalism: "It gives voice to the voiceless, it challenges power and it can have an impact in ways small and big." One of his proudest stories, written while he was with the AP, concerned an elderly black woman who was jailed in a suburban Louisiana town in the chaos following Hurricane Katrina, even though she had done nothing wrong. Within 12 hours of the story's publication, she was released. "It's a story that almost no one remembers, but to me it mattered most."
That essentially noble vision of journalism seems little changed from when Solomon first felt its pull as a kid in the 1970s. Back then, he would "almost religiously" read a column that would show up regularly in the Bridgeport Post (now the Connecticut Post) called the Washington Merry-Go-Round, written by the crusading and controversial Jack Anderson. "I was impressed that this guy could constantly turn out things that my dad would be proud of turning up as a cop...but which mattered to public policy: corruption and misspending. It really inspired me," Solomon recalls. "By the time I got into my teenage years and in high school, I knew that particularly the Jack Anderson approach to journalism was going to be something that appealed to me coming out of a family of cops and wanting to right wrongs and expose wrongdoing."
Solomon, a sports junkie who loves the outdoors, earned a bachelor's degree in journalism from Marquette University in Milwaukee, where one of his first professors was former White House Press Secretary George Reedy, who served under President Lyndon B. Johnson. Reedy, who had also been a wire reporter for United Press, made Solomon want to go to the nation's capital. "After having George as a professor that first year, I just said, 'Man, if I can one day get to Washington, then that's going to be the golden dream.' "
Some in the blogosphere have criticized Solomon's work. For example, a 2008 post in the liberal blog Think Progress compiled examples of alleged "over hyping minor stories, omitting key facts and twisting out of context the meaning of statements" in his reporting at the Post and AP. And the Web site Newsbusters, a project of the conservative Media Research Center, took Solomon to task for an October story from the Center for Public Integrity about anti-stimulus Republicans seeking stimulus funds.
Buzenberg says Solomon's reporting at the center garnered both praise and criticism from all across the political spectrum, which he considers "a pretty good indication of how he lets facts drive the reporting that he does."
"He is not ideological at all," Buzenberg adds. "I think this is one of his great strengths: an absolutely rigorous, incredible focus on investigative journalism, but going after the stories wherever they lead... He doesn't really care whose ox gets gored."
Throughout his career, Solomon says people have tried to pin down his political leanings. "When I wrote a hard-hitting story on [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid, I was suddenly a right-wing conservative. When I wrote all the stories that broke news about what George Bush knew about 9/11 but didn't act on before the attacks...suddenly I'd become a liberal."
"My wife couldn't tell you my political leanings, and she knows me better than anyone," Solomon says. "I decided at age 17, when I was going to become a journalist, that I would check any ideology any political thoughts I have and leave them at the door as long as I remained a journalist."
He says his move to the Washington Times led many to conclude he was a conservative, while his move to the Center for Public Integrity, which has received money from liberal financier George Soros, made other people think he was a liberal. "The fact that everybody's guessing and nobody knows is comforting to me," he says. "The great journalists in the country have never been popular with either side, but nor have they been hated by either side. They've just been down the middle," he says, naming Anderson, Washington Post journalist and author Bob Woodward, CNN's John King and National Journal's Ron Fournier as examples. "If you do your job, no one feels like you're on their side, and no one feels like you're against them."
Solomon says his career highlights have been the people he has been able to work alongside. "I started at age 19 in the AP, and I grew up alongside some of the greatest journalists in the country," he says. "Now I get to go work with Tina and her extraordinary team... At every step of my career I have had the extraordinary luck the extraordinary opportunity to work alongside people who lean forward in journalism, always had a good business sense, and knew how to make the two work together."