By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 25, 2010; C03
Just four years after giving the Washington Times to his eldest son, the Unification Church's leader, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, is considering paying millions of dollars to buy back the conservative newspaper he founded in 1982, according to former Times staffers with knowledge of the negotiations.
Moon wants to buy the Times back from his son Preston Moon, who has threatened to shut down the foundering broadsheet altogether, said Charles Sutherland, the Times's former director of development and promotions, who was laid off in May.
Times sources said Moon, who is 90, has tapped Dong Moon Joo, the former Times chairman who was ousted last year by Preston Moon, to purchase and run the paper. Messages left at Joo's home and with his attorney were not returned Tuesday.
"The idea is that Moon wants the paper back and wants Mr. Joo to run it," Sutherland said. "That's what the whole game is about. The old man trusts Joo."
The uncertainty about the Times's future follows a tumultuous year of layoffs, plummeting circulation, mounting debt, the purging of top executives, the resignation of executive editor John Solomon, and even the discovery of a snake found slithering in a meeting room. The paper has dropped its metro and sports sections and cut its newsroom staff by more than half.
An unsourced story on the media news and gossip Web site DCRTV.com Monday said that the site "hears that the Washington Times is close to closing," but Unification Church and Times sources said the paper's future is far from clear.
In addition to facing the declining economic fortunes that have hit vitually all newspapers, the Times is caught in the middle of a battle for control of Moon's vast business empire, as the church founder's grown children have been dueling over who will run Moon's real estate and fishing concerns. The father gave the Times to Preston, his oldest son, in 2006, according to former Times officials.
Tensions between Preston and his younger brother, Justin Moon, ignited last year, according to church and Times sources, after Preston tried to gain control of another church-supported company, UCI, which has about $3 billion in real estate and fishing assets. In retaliation, Justin, who runs many of the family's businesses in South Korea and Japan, slashed the Times's annual $35 million subsidy, forcing the paper into a series of layoffs. The newspaper has lost hundreds of millions since its founding, according to former Times executives.
Earlier this year, a group of conservative investors offered to buy the paper for $15 million, but they were rebuffed by Preston Moon. In May, the paper confirmed that it was actively seeking a buyer.
The newspaper's editor, Sam Dealey, declined to comment. Church spokesman Joshua Cotter did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
Some current and former Times staffers hope Moon and Joo can save the paper, but they also worry that Preston Moon will be reluctant to sell to Joo, whom he pushed out in late 2009.
Other sources said Joo may end up teaming up with at least two other former Times executives forced out by Preston Moon -- ex-publisher and president Thomas McDevitt and former finance chief Keith Cooperrider.
Sutherland said that Preston and Joo "don't like each other at all. It's a question of ego. If Joo ends up with the paper, it's a slap in the face to Preston."
Some Times staffers said they are trying to concentrate on putting out the newspaper and are hopeful that a turnaround is looming. "We're trying to figure out where we're going," said one Times staffer, who declined to be named for fear of getting fired. "I think people are optimistic. They wouldn't be here if they weren't optimistic." The Times stopped reporting its circulation data in 2008, when the paper had audited sales of about 87,000 copies a day; Times executives said in May that that number has dropped to about 42,000.
But other former staffers who remain close to key Times executives said reports of an imminent shutdown last week were at least partly true. "I heard that they were moving to shut it down, but those reports could have also been disinformation coming out as a negotiating stance," said a former Times staffer. "No money's being spent on anything. Everything's frozen."