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John Solomon of The Washington Guardian Talks Journalism

The Associated Press, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Newsweek, The Center for Public Integrity–you name a prominent investigative journalism outfit, and chances are John Solomon has left his imprint there. Now, the veteran writer and editor is back in the game at The Washington Guardian, a new online investigative reporting unit that has made waves since its 2011 launch–and he’s visibly excited by it.

A New Project, A Timeless Mission

“We’re going back to the future,” Solomon told me in a crowded coffee shop in downtown Washington. Stopping for a quick conversation between meetings and speaking quickly and emphatically, Solomon laid out his mission for the Guardian as a throwback to the “heyday of gumshoe journalism.”

Solomon founded the Guardian in August 2011 and provided much of the start-up capital from his own pocket. Sixteen months in, the outfit is well on its way to Solomon’s goal of “ubiquity in investigative reporting”–through radio, TV, and print channels in addition to its website. (Partners of the Guardian include media giants Sinclair and Gannett, WTOP-FM, and several dozen TV stations.) He emphasized the importance of the Guardian’s profitability (it’s already broken even), linking a media outlet’s credibility to its ability to stay in the black.

Why, in this turbulent era for journalism, risk your own money to start a new enterprise? Solomon pointed to the way the media operated in the mid-20th century. “Everyone had an investigative unit. It was fashionable and important to hold the powerful to accountability. Now, two recessions have eliminated large swaths of journalism. Investigative work isn’t sexy, but it adds a lot to the dialogue. It used to be the heart of the news industry, and we’re going to package this 20th century concept with 21st century delivery.”

What Aspiring Journalists Need To Know

Solomon has traveled a long road to his present project. Growing up in a family of police officers, he claims “Investigating is in my DNA!” and knew from an early age that he wanted to pursue a career in writing. A journalism major at Marquette, Solomon has discovered during his years in the field that a degree isn’t the key to being an effective writer and truth-seeker. Rather, “It’s more important to understand the world around you.”

Solomon’s advice to aspiring journalists should inspire Citizen Watchdogs who have spent their careers in other fields. He refers to the younger generation of journalism school graduates as “technocrats”–”They can cut a video and tweet great, but they don’t understand the global economy, the free market, Constitutional division of powers, and how a divided government works. If you’re just out of school and you don’t understand how the world works, you’re at a big disadvantage. Learn economics, politics, science, and geography. Be in control of the subjects you cover.”

He offered one more critical piece of wisdom for Watchdogs: “Create an ethos to be fair and balanced. Those are values you need to instill in yourself early on.”

Straight Facts In A World of “Infotainment”

At each stop in his career, most notably during his tenure as Executive Editor at the Washington Times from 2008-09, Solomon has focused on drawing what he calls a “bright red line” between news and opinion. At the Guardian, there’s no need for such lines. “We have no opinion section. At some places, there’s confusion as to who are the opinion people and who are the news people. There’s never any doubt who’s who at the Guardian.

On a broader scale, Solomon is clearly sour on modern opinionated journalism. He traces our present partisan divide to the 1990′s and the rise of “infotainment” in the news media, spearheaded by Fox News Channel and soon followed by MSNBC, The Huffington Post, and countless others. As he put it, “If people continue on the path of tuning into opinion instead of tuning in to hear what they don’t know, opinion will continue to masquerade as fact.” It was clear throughout the interview that he will go to great lengths to keep opinionated voices out of the Guardian.

The other trend in modern news that troubles Solomon is the prioritization of timeliness over accuracy. “When I started my career, the mantra was ‘Get it first, but get it right first.’ That’s become, ‘Get it first and hope it’s right.’” He cited a recent inaccurate story on negotiations with Iran that ran on the front page of The New York Times, as well as CNN’s and FNC’s misreporting of the Supreme Court’s Obamacare ruling, as examples of a trend that has damaged the media’s credibility.

Although troubled by “infotainment,” Solomon expressed reserved, cautious optimism for the future of the journalism industry. “News is a marketplace,” he said. “And the business models in journalism still trail the market.” He compared the struggle of media organizations to transition to pay-for-content online models (after 15 years of virtually unlimited free online news) to “putting toothpaste back in a tube.”

What’s Next?

What, then, can readers expect from the Guardian? “Narrower, deeper journalism,” Solomon says, with a focus on taxpayer money, security issues, and individual freedoms. The Guardian publishes multiple accountability stories each day, on its website and in print, on TV, and on the radio. When asked how he can publish so much material, he said, “There are many, many great accountability stories waiting to be written each day. There are 20-30 Inspector General reports on waste a week from federal agencies. There’s campaign finance. There’s always something.”

That there always is.

 

Kevin Palmer

Staff writer at Franklin Center. Contact me at kevin@watchdogwire.com

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