The New Face of the Times

"If I made one fundamental change, it's to make sure opinion and commentary didn't bleed onto the news pages," Solomon says. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The front-page story seemed a throwback to the era when the Washington Times delighted in bashing the Clintons day after day: "Hillary still in bed with '96 scandal."

The revelation wasn't earth-shattering: Forty-nine of Hillary Clinton's top fundraisers had spent the night in the Lincoln Bedroom during her husband's reelection effort, a fact that said little about the donors and much about Bill Clinton's use of the mansion for political purposes.

John Solomon, the paper's new executive editor, was proud of the Feb. 8 story, but made clear to colleagues that he was mighty displeased on one point. "The headline was too tart, and sexist in some respects," Solomon says.

In the four months since the ruddy, garrulous Solomon left a one-year stint at The Washington Post to take over the capital's other daily, he has made sweeping changes. Some are literally cosmetic: The paper unveiled a new design yesterday. More significant, though, Solomon has brought a sense of political balance to what his predecessors candidly called a conservative newspaper.

"When John Solomon calls, you know it isn't good, but you look forward to calling him back because he's such an honest broker," says Clinton spokesman Phil Singer. "I've always found him to be aboveboard."

Officials in Barack Obama's campaign say a number of Times stories have been unfair to their candidate. But other observers have been struck recently by the paper's more straightforward approach to politics.

In an interview at the paper's Northeast Washington headquarters, Solomon, 41, conveys a mixture of energy and impatience, spewing out ideas faster than they can be scribbled on a pad.

"If I made one fundamental change," he says, "it's to make sure opinion and commentary didn't bleed onto the news pages." Toward that end, he issued a memo banning what he says were "archaic" terms used by the paper, such as "homosexual" and "illegal aliens."

Veteran Times reporter Ralph Hallow says he believes the right-leaning Times balances the left-leaning Post. Solomon's aim, he says, is to satisfy a conservative audience "without making the newspaper a shill for any of the causes of the right, for the Bible-thumpers -- something that is sensitive to them but doesn't pander to them."

David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, says he hasn't noticed any change: "The strength of the Times on the news side has always been not any bias, but that it covers different things than The Post does. They cover more things of interest to conservatives."

Solomon's first accomplishment was to transform the paper's Web site, nearly doubling the number of unique visitors to 2.5 million a month. The site is now frequently updated, uses more video, has added an online radio show and launched Facebook-style communities built around such topics as home schooling, the Redskins and motherhood.

The greatest challenge remains the newspaper, launched in 1982 by officials of the Unification Church and bleeding red ink ever since. Daily circulation is 94,000, compared with 673,000 for The Post. Solomon recently laid off nearly 30 of his 200 staffers, though he plans to hire about 20 Web specialists. While the privately held company doesn't disclose its finances, Solomon says the streamlined budget "moves us significantly closer to profitability."

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