Washington Times struggles amid divisions of family, ideology, finances

The Washington Post/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.

Solomon declined to comment.

McDevitt was optimistic. In mid-August 2009, he e-mailed Times and church officials boasting about the radio deal and how the paper had received an apology from a New York Times editor for a story that characterized the Washington Times as "decidedly opposed" to President Obama -- wording that Washington Times editors said unfairly labeled their news reporters who sought to cover the news objectively.

McDevitt still dreamed high, writing about a drive to win a Pulitzer Prize, and he invoked the Times' longstanding code -- "Summit of Mt. Everest"-- for the ultimate goal of finally achieving profitability and freedom from church subsidies. McDevitt said he had promised the Rev. Moon that someday, after McDevitt's wife of 20 years died, he planned to "dedicate 40 more years on earth, and with [my wife's] help from Heaven, first make The Washington Times the most powerful media company in America." He added: " 'When The Washington Times reaches profitability, America will be resurrected.' I heard that from Father directly years ago."

"Gentlemen, Today is an historical day for which I deeply thank Heaven," began McDevitt's letter, obtained by The Post. "For the sake of this nation, and for the sake of God's providence, I pray that we choose to focus on the mission and the purposes for which The Washington Times was founded. This franchise has become a national treasure."

Preston read the e-mail and grew angry, according to a former Times official. "Preston felt like the letter showed Tom wasn't up to the task of running the Washington Times in the way he mixed together church and state," the source said.

Several weeks later, McDevitt was fired, along with Joo and Cooperrider. And the Times stopped paying Talk Radio Network, having lost hundreds of thousands on the radio show, according to former and current Times officials.

By early 2010, some Times staffers were concerned that Preston, who was perceived as less committed to conservative causes than his father, would steer the paper away from its ideological roots. Even after his recent departure, some worried that Solomon, a former Washington Post reporter, had made the paper's coverage too moderate. Charles Sutherland, the paper's former director of development and promotions, said he and some editors devised a plan to feature two articles a week highlighting excessive spending in the Obama health-care plan. They created and distributed around the Times building pins reading "Cut or Be Cut," advocating trims to the health-care plan.

"A lot of customers were calling saying, 'Why should we buy the Times when we can read the same crap in The Post?' " Sutherland recalled. "Preston wasn't married to the idea of having a conservative paper."

But Preston told some Times executives that he wanted a profitable paper and was committed to its conservative stance, even if his own politics were less doctrinaire than his father's. "The threat of China is a big deal to him, and American strength is really necessary, but he thought Bush's invasion of Iraq was a huge mistake," said a former Times official.

Return of the father?

Without the money from the church, the paper fell into what many perceived as a death spiral. Some Times staffers said they heard about plans to abandon the print edition and go Web-only. Others said a mysterious group of "international businessmen" had offered Preston $15 million for the paper.

In July of this year, letters revealing the bickering among the Moon siblings appeared online and were circulated by church members. In the opening jab, a letter from Preston's company, UCI, skewered younger brother Justin for withholding church funds that support the Times. Justin "is pursuing a slash and burn strategy," the memo said.

A week later, Justin and sister Tatiana Moon, along with McDevitt, Cooperrider and Joo, wrote back to say that the flow of church dollars halted because investors had lost faith in the paper when they learned their money was being spent on "shut-down" costs. Preston, they asserted, had misused church funds and bucked their father's demands. Preston "should simply return The Times to its previous directors and the sponsorship of the Founder," they wrote.

On the night of Aug. 19, Preston threatened to shut the paper down, according to a former Times staffer familiar with the paper's sales negotiations. But it's unclear if Preston was bluffing.

The Rev. Moon, McDevitt, Cooperrider and Joo formed a company called News World Media Development and Moon, in a threat to Preston, said he would launch a new newspaper backed with $100 million, the source said.

On Aug. 23, Preston and News World Media Development tentatively agreed to a deal, with 30 days to reach final agreement on returning the paper to the father, according to a memo by Michael Marshall, an adviser to Preston's company. One condition of sale was met in late August, according to a former Times official: The paper settled a lawsuit by former editorial-page editor Richard Miniter, who had sued the Times, saying he had been coerced into attending a mass wedding in New York.

Miniter said he is not permitted to discuss the settlement, but he released a statement: "I am very, very happy with the equitable and just result." A report on the Fishbowl DC blog Friday said Miniter was getting $20,000, according to a copy of the settlement agreement the blog had obtained.

Current and former Times officials said they are grateful for Rev. Moon's possible return -- and for his seemingly bottomless pipeline of subsidies. "The paper has the best shot under Mr. Joo," said Kenneth Hanner, a former Times national editor who spent 26 years at the paper. "Preston went off like a renegade and now they're bringing it back to the mothership. I would like it to return to its former glory -- you can't do that if it's been slashed and burned."

But former and current Times officials still worry that the team Moon intends to put back in charge includes the same people who presided over the paper's financial crisis. They fear that Moon's children will kill or sell the paper once the founder dies.

"The only one who seems to care about the paper is the father," said a senior Times official who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of getting fired. "The children don't care. . . . The morale of the newsroom is dreadfully low. You feel like you're in a dying institution and the owners don't care about what they have and what the Washington Times is."

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