January 2, 2013

New publisher betting heavily on paper

Aaron Kushner even plans to charge the same price for his newspaper's online version as the print edition.

The Associated Press

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Aaron Kushner
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Aaron Kushner, shown in his office at The Orange County Register in Santa Ana, Calif., says “We’re a little crazy in that we really do believe that we can grow this particular newspaper.”

The Associated Press

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Photos of some of the newly hired reporters at the Orange County Register line the newsroom wall. About 75 new journalists have been added with more on the way.

The Associated Press

Many executives stayed put, including the top editor, Ken Brusic, who joined the Register in 1989.

The newsroom is nearing 300 employees, including about 40 year-round interns who are paid $10 an hour and provided housing. The new owners eliminated 401(k) matches at the non-union newspaper and have resisted pay raises.

Like other newspapers, the Register experimented over the last decade as its circulation tumbled 40 percent and the newsroom shrank in half. A tabloid paper featuring snappier stories failed, as did a weekly entertainment publication.

Reporters got ever-rising numerical targets to generate Web traffic, with constant reminders of how they fared against peers. "It was more like a sales floor than a newsroom," columnist Frank Mickadeit wrote in a recent piece hailing the Register's "reawakening."

To focus more on the print edition, the Register slashed the number of blogs from around 40 to less than a dozen. It scrapped an iPad application for news, traffic and weather.

The new owners have introduced a daily page for coverage of a major development, began sending a reporter and photographer to every one of the region's 50 high school football games on Fridays and doubled editorial pages.

Reporters have been encouraged to dig deeper and expand sources. "It's a new experience for (a publisher) to say, 'Are you sure you have enough investigative reporters? I think you ought to hire more,"' Brusic said.

The Register's editorial page - once a strong libertarian voice - didn't endorse for president in November. Kushner has contributed to Democrats such as Barack Obama and Joe Biden and moderate Republicans, including Sen. Susan Collins of Maine.

Kushner declined to discuss his political views and said they are separate from his work at the Register.

He is looking to buy more newspapers, telling Register staff last year that he had a list of 15 that fit his criteria. In an interview, he expressed interest in Tribune Co. newspapers, which include the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and Baltimore Sun.

Some readers and employees question how much the new owners will stomach if growth stalls. Kushner insisted he is committed, saying the Register has a strong balance sheet and doesn't answer to shareholders seeking quick returns.

"If you don't have a clear tangible way to grow revenue you only have one alternative and that's to cut costs," he said. "That path may well work. That's not the path that we're on here."


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