Starting a daily newspaper seemed like a huge gamble in 1982, and starting one in the nation’s capital seemed an even crazier idea.
The city had lost more than 100,000 people in the 1970s, and the country writ large would lose 130 newspapers throughout the 1980s — including The Washington Star.
Into those headwinds marched the Rev. Sun Myung Moon.
“When Washington, the nation’s capital, ended up with one liberal newspaper, The Washington Post,” he said, “I waited for some rich people with a lot of resources to come forward and publish a patriotic newspaper in Washington. Since no one did, I stood up and said, ‘Let’s do it.’”
His daring gamble became The Washington Times, which marks its 40th year of publication on Tuesday.
Rev. Moon’s philosophy was that having more voices makes for a better citizenry, and for a time, it seemed the news industry agreed. The growth of the internet at the turn of the century spawned a First Amendment free-for-all, with new platforms and publications shattering the hegemony of the old media.
COVERAGE: Freedom, family, faith: Celebrating 40 years of The Washington Times
But as The Times turns 40, Rev. Moon’s philosophy is being challenged yet again by the emergence of a handful of tech giants who act as news gatekeepers, policing the types of stories their users get to see.
“As Big Tech has taken on the role of information gatekeeper and the mainstream has veered further into advocacy, our mission remains simple: fact-driven reporting in the news section and a robust airing of opinionated debate in the Commentary section,” said Christopher Dolan, president and executive editor of The Times. “Our goal is to give readers the tools to make decisions about the world around them, not to tell them what to think.”
At a time when many newspapers adopted a world-weary view of the American experiment, The Times unabashedly celebrated the country, seeing it as the winning horse in a battle against Cold War communism.
Dr. Hak Ja Han Moon, who helped establish The Times with her husband, celebrated that mission in a speech last year to the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification and the American Clergy Leadership Conference.
She said the paper is playing an emboldened role in a turbulent U.S. and global media landscape.
“The aim of The Times,” she said, “has been to inform American leaders on how to defend America and, as a nation blessed by God, how America can live for the sake of the world.”
As the Cold War gave way to the peace dividend, battles over the size of government and a post-Sept. 11 world, The Times continued to offer readers an alternative.
“From my days as a freshman on Capitol Hill to the red wave of 2010, through the Trump-Pence administration and now as the Biden administration advances a radical agenda, The Washington Times has always played a pivotal role in telling the stories the dominant media sources so often ignore,” said former Vice President Mike Pence.
He said that remains the case today.
“Even as those establishment media elites join forces with Big Tech to silence conservative voices, The Washington Times continues to serve the same mission to provide a counterweight to the ‘mainstream media,’” Mr. Pence said.
Since the death of Rev. Moon in 2012, Dr. Hak Ja Han Moon, who helped establish The Times with her husband, has dedicated financial resources to ensure The Times’ global presence is protected.
Having experienced firsthand the brutal nature of communism, Rev. and Dr. Moon shared a vision for ending communism. “My husband and I invested significant sums of money and founded The Washington Times,” she said last year, adding that The Times “became a reference for American presidents, including President Reagan.”
“The aim of The Times,” she said at a peace rally, “has been to inform American leaders on how to defend America and, as a nation blessed by God, how America can live for the sake of the world.”
Charles Hurt, opinion editor of The Times, said the paper’s strength is knowing its audience.
“Since our founding, The Washington Times has always cut against the grain,” he said. “We are forever committed to the highest standards of true and honest reporting, but our goal has always been to deliver the news of Washington to people far outside of Washington. We strive to be a newspaper of record for the people who pay all the bills around here.”
The Times’ first edition on May 17, 1982, led with news out of the south Atlantic, with a large headline proclaiming “Falklands invasion near” above a bylined story from the paper’s London bureau.
The Times also fronted a story on how the edition made it out the door, calling it an “eleventh-hour miracle” as staffers overcame last-minute struggles with the paper’s typesetting facilities.
Early sales were limited to newsstands and street boxes, and the paper carried no advertisements because it needed to test “public acceptance.”
Morton Blackwell, a longtime fixture in Republican politics who was serving as an aide in the Reagan White House in 1982, said the paper was greeted with skepticism even among some conservatives. But the paper delivered “excellent and fair coverage from the outset,” he said, and it chipped away at the skepticism.
“It was gradual, but I think the appreciation of The Washington Times is now essentially universal among conservatives. It’s proven itself with its coverage,” Mr. Blackwell said.
Reagan quickly became a daily reader of the paper, and subsequent presidents also paid close attention. President Trump was known to send The Times’ immigration stories to his homeland security secretary for action.
The Post also kept close tabs on its crosstown sibling, including its own story on May 17, 1982, chronicling the first day of deadlines at The Times. The Post’s reporting called it nothing short of “astonishing” that a newspaper would be launched amid the grim fortunes of the news business.
“At a time when urban papers are sputtering and dying nationwide, The Times is a curiosity,” The Post reported. “As publisher and editor James Whelan says: ‘Launching a newspaper. It’s the goddamndest thing.’”
That story was the first of many Post reports doing pulse checks on The Times, with coverage of the paper’s finances and the doings of Rev. Moon, the founder.
Over the four decades since, The Post itself has experienced changes, including its sale to Jeff Bezos, now ranked as the world’s second-richest man, whose personal life and business doings make front-page news.
Mr. Blackwell said The Post had reason to take notice of The Times, particularly after seeing off its previous competitor, The Star.
“The Post was always left-wing and is terribly left-wing today, but it may be the most abusive newspaper coverage of all was in that period of about a year between the discontinuance of The Washington Star and the arrival of The Washington Times,” he said. “They could ignore stories and distort stories without fear that the balanced reality might be reported widely elsewhere.”
Rev. Moon’s audacity in building a D.C. newspaper would be imitated by others. The Washington Examiner started in 2005 with a daily tabloid whose editorial stance sought to win many of the conservative-minded readers of The Times.
The Examiner lasted eight years in print before morphing into a website and weekly magazine in 2013.
In 2003, The Post started its own alternative paper, the Express, a free tabloid for distribution to commuters. The Express shut down in 2019 because of what it said was declining Metro ridership and the availability of Wi-Fi, which gave commuters alternatives to reading a print paper.
The Times has persisted, though like other papers, the print edition looks markedly different. The comics and crossword puzzle still appear, now joined by a Sudoku puzzle. The daily weather map is gone, as are television and movie listings and box scores — casualties of the instant gratification of the internet.
The internet has also reshaped the broader news environment in which The Times competes.
When the paper started, each type of media had its place. Newspapers were king, providing a hefty look at the goings-on of the day though usually to a limited geographic area. Radio provided quick snapshots on the hour, and television delivered morning, evening and nighttime newscasts. Magazines provided longer-form context to the news.
The advent of 24-hour news channels on cable began to upend that hierarchy, but it was the internet that proved the bigger fault line flattening the news business. Now monthly magazines, newspapers and cable networks are all competing for eyeballs in real time around the globe.
“In the 40 years since we started, we have endured some pretty unthinkable obstacles — from the demise of legacy newsprint operations to the proliferation of information sources on the internet, supercharged by social media. Through it all, The Times has never shied away from its founding principles,” Mr. Hurt said. “We still today offer honest, fair and verified reporting in our news pages along with a clarifying editorial voice in our opinion pages.
“All the fads come and go, and we just keep on doing what we have always done. As hard as it is to compete in today’s carnival news environment, we remain as confident as ever that those principles hold us true and steady,” Mr. Hurt said.