Washington Times struggles amid divisions of family, ideology, finances
Monday, September 6, 2010
Last fall in South Korea, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, founder of the Unification Church, presided over a mass wedding in the tens of thousands, blessing marriages he had personally arranged -- all couples in white gowns, kimonos and black suits. But the self-described messiah, then approaching his 90th birthday, had been making other arrangements, drawing up a succession plan in which his grown sons would maintain his movement's legacy.
Sean Moon, the youngest son, who once performed 21,000 bows in honor of his parents, assumed the church's top post, reportedly as international president and religious director. The second-oldest living son, Justin Moon, handled the family's conglomerate of newspaper, construction and manufacturing companies in Asia. And Preston Moon, the oldest living son, took control of South Korean real estate and various U.S. companies, including the Washington Times, founded by his father in 1982 as a conservative daily that would lead the fight against communism. (Sean is reportedly in his early 30s, while his brothers are each roughly a decade older than he.)
But Preston, who had been blessed by his father a decade earlier as the son who would lead the Unification movement, was furious about this division of the family empire and felt outmaneuvered by his siblings, according to church and Times officials who declined to be named because they were wary of offending the faith's leaders.
Through the spring and summer of this year, that fraternal rivalry has come perilously close to claiming as its victim the Times, which was once one of the nation's most prominent platforms for conservative writers and politicians but is now one of the most endangered newspapers in a troubled industry. Since 2008, Times circulation has tumbled from 87,000 daily copies to about 40,000; its sports and metro sections were shuttered; its three top executives were fired; and more than half the newsroom was laid off.
Since its founding, the paper has lost an estimated $2 billion, surviving on church subsidies. Last year, those payments dried up.
Now, the newspaper's future rests on a fragile deal that might return control to the "True Father," as the senior Moon is known in church circles. Moon, represented by a trio of recently fired Times executives -- president and publisher Thomas McDevitt, finance chief Keith Cooperrider and chairman Douglas M. Joo -- is negotiating to purchase the paper back from Preston for $1, according to an internal Times memo obtained by The Washington Post and first reported by U.S. News & World Report. Former and current Times employees say that under the buyback proposal, Moon and his top aides would also assume the paper's $8 million to $10 million in liabilities and debt. But Times board member Richard Wojcik said in an interview that completion of the deal "remains to be seen."
McDevitt, Joo and Cooperrider did not return calls seeking comment. A church spokesman declined to comment. A Times spokesman said Preston Moon would not comment for this article. Sam Dealey, the Times' executive editor, declined to comment.
On the rocks
In summer 2009, the Times' future turned rocky. In July, church donations from Japan, long a key source of subsidies, stopped flowing to the paper, according to a memo by Victor Walters, treasurer of the Times' parent company. Walters did not return phone messages left at his office.
Times executives scrambled to figure out why the spigot had been turned off. Cooperrider e-mailed a senior church official: "We are really on the edge here. This is payroll week and we didn't get all of last week's funds yet and this week's funds are not at all clear. Should we start closing the doors?"
In e-mails obtained by The Post, Cooperrider provided a laundry list of problems, including the fact that the Times' Internet provider and health insurance bills hadn't been paid.
Instructed to contact Justin Moon, the second-oldest son, Cooperrider wrote asking, "Should TWT close their doors? Has the Founder instructed that should happen?" He signed his e-mail, "For the sake of America and the world . . . Keith Cooperrider."
Meanwhile, other Times executives searched for alternative revenue streams. McDevitt and John Solomon, then the executive editor, pushed for a morning-drive radio show that would air around the country. They struck a deal with Talk Radio Network, a major syndicator of talk shows. The Times would pay the distributor $100,000 a month for three years in exchange for a portion of advertising revenues, according to Times sources and internal documents.