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Three top executives ousted by Washington Times

By Frank Ahrens and Howard Kurtz
Tuesday, November 10, 2009; A10

Three top executives at the Washington Times were ousted Monday in a top-level shake-up prompted by the ongoing economic crisis.

Times president and publisher Thomas P. McDevitt, chief financial officer Keith Cooperrider and chairman Dong Moon Joo were "relieved of their duties," according to a statement from the newspaper. Former Times vice chairman Jonathan Slevin was named acting president and publisher. The other positions have yet to be filled.

"Our assessment team looks forward to emerging with a market-based plan that supports the sustainability of The Washington Times and advances the Times' role as an important source of news and opinion for readers who value a diversity of information and analysis," Slevin said in the statement.

Economics appears to be at the heart of the shakeup. The Times, established in 1982 by Unification Church founder the Rev. Sun Myung Moon as a politically conservative voice in the nation's capital, has always been subsidized by the church. At the paper's 20th anniversary, it was estimated by industry experts that Moon had put more than $1.7 billion into the Times. As such, the Times was largely shielded from long-term declines in readership and advertising that have hammered almost every other newspaper, causing deep cuts in coverage and staff, and even forcing some papers out of business.

But the recession has proved so great as to apparently have touched even the Times.

"It's safe to say that the conditions impacting a lot of publications have also impacted the Times, and perhaps more so," said Don Meyer, of Rubin Meyer Communications in the District, which is handling public relations for the newspaper.

For members of the Unification Church, questions have become more urgent in recent years over what will happen when Moon -- nearly 90 -- dies, both to the religious movement he founded as well as the many businesses the church owns.

Of Moon's 13 children, the mantle generally has been passed to three sons and a daughter, but specifics have been elusive. Church members said this week that the shakeup at the Times reflected a power struggle among the sons.

During the 1980s, the Times enjoyed the favor of the Reagan White House and scored many scoops. Since then, however, several editors have worked to professionalize the paper and confine its politically conservative views to the editorial pages, striving for objective news coverage.

The most recent to do so is John Solomon, hired as executive editor in January 2008, following a career as an investigative reporter at The Washington Post and Associated Press.

It is unclear what the executive shake-up means for Solomon, who could not be reached for comment. After Solomon left The Post, he hired Post lobbying reporter Jeff Birnbaum as managing editor.

Unlike his predecessor, current Times editor emeritus Wesley Pruden, Solomon refused to oversee the paper's opinion pages, so as to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest. Most newspapers wall off news and opinion coverage from each other and operate under separate editors.

Solomon undertook other changes, such as reversing the paper's long-standing policy -- often criticized from the outside -- of referring to former first lady and current Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in headlines as simply "Hillary." Also, Solomon removed the quote marks the paper typically put around the phrase "gay marriage" and approved the use of "gay" instead of the Times's preferred "homosexual."

Most importantly, though, Solomon was charged with making the Times profitable. He launched a number of initiatives, including a modernization of the paper's Web site, and moves into other ventures, such as talk radio, as a way of promoting the paper's brand. As recently as last week, he was talking up the growth of the paper's Web site with a Washington Post reporter and trumpeting an agreement for The Post to distribute the Times.

Within months of being hired, Solomon had laid off 30 of his 200 staffers and doubled the traffic of the Times's Web site. He appeared to have McDevitt's full confidence as he recast the paper's mission, but the publisher's ouster removed his chief protector.

McDevitt was a former pastor at Washington's Unification Church. In a 1999 speech, he referred to the Times and Moon, who is known as "Father" in the church: "Father . . . feels absolutely confident that it's through the media and communications industry that absolute wealth and prosperity will grow. It gave me hope. I think it gave the Washington Times hope about achieving profitability in our media companies."

Staff writer Michelle Boorstein contributed to this report.

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