By Howard Kurtz
Saturday, January 9, 2010; C01
In Monday's first edition of the slimmed-down Washington Times, a wraparound flier boasted that the paper "has undergone significant changes to make this newspaper THE source for news about Washington, DC, our country and the world."
But with about 60 percent of its editorial staff gone -- not the 40 percent cut initially announced -- it would be hard to describe the revamped Times as anything other than a bare-bones publication. The metro and sports sections are gone. Much of the inside of the news section is filled with wire stories. The conservative commentary section has little staff-written material beyond the editorials. Instead, it features the thoughts of Newt Gingrich, John Bolton, Grover Norquist, Tony Blankley and other outside contributors, along with officials from such groups as the Heritage Foundation and Let Freedom Ring.
Times President Jonathan Slevin said he is not perturbed and that it will take two or three weeks "to start to hit our stride. . . . I don't feel good about the fine people who are no longer with us, but I feel very good about the strategy and the direction we're heading."
Slevin would not disclose the number of newsroom layoffs, saying the Times, owned by members of the Unification Church, is a privately held company. He said at least 40 percent of the staff was let go company-wide, but that the Times is also doing selective hiring, such as doubling the size of what is now a six-person investigative team under veteran reporter Jerry Seper.
The Times has run some solid staff-written pieces this week, such as one on the head of the Postal Service moonlighting on corporate boards and another on disaffected GOP donors turned off by party chairman Michael Steele. But it's clear that the Web is the company's priority, not the free, limited-distribution, Monday-to-Friday print edition. Even by the standards of a struggling newspaper industry, the shrinkage is severe.
The Web site, meanwhile, has had its own cutbacks, with the company killing a companion opinion page, theconservatives.com, which Slevin said "never really got off the ground."
Some current and former staffers are worried that the paper might return to the days when its news coverage tilted blatantly to the right. They look at certain headlines -- such as Wednesday's front-page story, "Recruits for 2010 put glee in GOP/'Obama-Pelosi agenda' cited" -- as crafted to appeal to a conservative readership.
The former executive editor, John Solomon, had brought greater balance to news coverage and headlines. But the newsroom has been without a leader since Solomon quit in November during a management shake-up.and. Slevin said he has nearly completed the search for a new editor, whom he hopes to name by the end of this month, and that a news director, who would handle operations, will be named instead of two managing editors.
"We've flattened the organization by intention," Slevin said. "I think it's a good thing. That's not to say the people here weren't excellent journalists, but the best ideas come up from the reporters."
Solomon has not spoken publicly about his departure. He met this week with top executives of The Washington Post, where he worked as a reporter before taking the Times job in early 2008, to visit friends and discuss ideas for future projects.
The Times is considering the possibility of leaving its campuslike headquarters on New York Avenue NE for cheaper office space, but Slevin said no decision has been made. If the paper does move, he said, it most likely would remain in the District.
Morale at the Times has been devastated, with many staffers questioning the paper's survival strategy. Some top correspondents have quit for other jobs, including three who covered the White House: Christina Bellantoni, Jon Ward and former Post reporter Matthew Mosk.