It seemed too good to be true.
Ken Brusic, the editor of the Orange County Register, was pondering his newspaper in early 2013. He’d been in its large (285,000 daily circulation) newsroom for over a quarter century, survived new ownership six months earlier, and liked what he saw.
An ex-greeting card company owner had come in and bought the paper for $50 million cash. Declaring his lack of media experience an advantage, Aaron Kushner, 39, hired more reporters, added new sections covering autos, food and business, and ordered up daily color comics.
“If you don’t have a clear tangible way to grow revenue, you have one alternative and that’s to cut costs. That path may work well. That’s not the path we’re on here,” he noted.
Editor Brusic, the veteran, was amazed that Kushner was actually prodding him to hire more investigative reporters.
But that heady era ended abruptly last Thursday. In a round of layoffs, Kushner cut 39 jobs at the OCR, including a dozen writers. Brusic reportedly refused to implement the cuts and quit instead, ending his 25-year run at the paper.
The Register finished the job cuts with more reporters than it had when Kushner bought it. Yet the move, rumored for weeks, left many wondering if Kushner was in financial trouble and whether his bet had hit a monstrous reality wall.
Kushner had widely fished around before landing the Register. He’d pondered bidding on the Boston Globe and told unions at Maine’s largest paper that he’d consider buying it if they’d agree to 50 concessions, according to local reports.
But in July 2012, he decided on Orange County instead, laying out $50 million in cash and taking on over $115 million (a now-disputed number) in liabilities.
Orange County is located where a southern suburb of Los Angeles would otherwise be. It is affluent, notably conservative and boasts TV-ready housewives. The county has few large local media outlets, depending on L.A. for television. Its capital city, Santa Ana, is 33 miles to the southeast.
The Kushner strategy for OC calls for mixing hyper-local coverage and “good news.” He insisted the paper staff 50 local Friday night football games last season. To emphasize his enthusiasm for the business, he laid out another $27 million for the nearby Riverside Press-Enterprise and announced plans to start Los Angeles and Long Beach editions of the OCR.
The fact that Kushner’s is a private business and doesn’t disclose earnings hasn’t stopped tongues from wagging. One, belonging to the publisher of the (now late) Boston Phoenix, predicted disaster.
“They are having a horrible time,” said Stephen Mindich, who shuttered the Boston Phoenix while keeping two other editions. “They are losing millions and millions of dollars.”
Across town, the OC Weekly has predictably crowed at Kushner’s stumbling, introducing an “OC Register Death Watch” feature.
To be sure, there were hints of trouble. Observers widely predicted pitfalls when Kushner, downplaying a digital future, installed a paywall that blocked OCR content to those who didn’t agree to its steep $30 monthly charge (higher than the New York Times). They were right. Digital numbers plunged.
Kushner also got into financial disagreements with the ex-owners of both papers he’d bought. The ex-owner of the Riverside paper sued to force him to go through with the purchase, according to the Los Angeles Times. And Kushner fought the ex-owners of the OCR, blocking the payment of $17 million he’d held back (a standard provision of business acquisitions) by claiming the ex-owners had lowballed the cost of unfunded pensions.
But there is a lot riding on Kushner’s ambitions. He’s about the only exec in the U.S. betting that an injection of money and enthusiasm can save a dead-tree newspaper from a digital rush. If he blows it, followers may judge more that the strategy is doomed than that Kushner — well — just blew it.
There is method to some of his strategy. When he laid off 39 at the Riverside paper, he explained that he could “consolidate” jobs with the larger OCR. The industry is moving toward outsourcing positions in copyediting and layout. The ex-owners of the paper experimented in 2008 by contracting with a firm in India to handle those functions.
Kushner has a masters in organizational analysis but no background in journalism or media. Columbia Journalism Review writer Ryan Chittum likened his venture to “the rebuilt Chevelle SS of the newspaper industry.” He’s not even owned the OCR for two years yet, though he claims to have plowed another $15 million into it beyond what he paid (and didn’t) for it.
It’s an open question whether the hyper-local news angle, specialty of the now-closed Patch venture by AOL, will work, or that Kushner’s declared fondness for “positive news” can avoid insulting readers.
Time (and money) will tell if Kushner’s inexperience in the news business may be his saving grace.
“Our view of the world is different,” he said. “We’re a little crazy in that we really do believe we can grow this particular newspaper.”
The writer (firstname.lastname@example.org ) is a founder of the Aspen Daily News and appears here Sundays.