Tag Archives: Washington Post

Globe wins Pulitzer for ‘story none of us wanted to cover’

Brian McGrory during the Pulitzer announcement.

Brian McGrory during the Pulitzer announcement. (Photo courtesy of The Boston Globe.)

This article was published earlier at WGBH News.

Within moments of the announcement that The Boston Globe had won the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting, Martine Powers tweeted from the newsroom. “This was a story none of us wanted to cover,” she quoted editor Brian McGrory as saying. The staff, she said, then observed a moment of silence at McGrory’s request for the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings.

The Globe easily could have won two or three Pulitzers for its coverage of the bombings and their aftermath. The breaking-news award, of course, was well-deserved, and frankly it was unimaginable that it would go to anyone else. But the paper also had worthy marathon-related finalists in Breaking News Photography (John Tlumacki and David L. Ryan) as well as Commentary (Kevin Cullen, who emerged as the voice and conscience of the city after the attack).

McGrory’s classy response to winning underscores the sad reality that the Globe’s excellent coverage was driven by a terrible tragedy — the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil since Sept. 11, 2001. (The Globe was also a finalist in Editorial Writing, as Dante Ramos was honored for a non-marathon-related topic: improving the city’s night life.)

The Pulitzer also caps what has been a remarkable year for the Globe. On Marathon Monday 2013, McGrory was relatively untested as editor and the paper’s prospects were uncertain, as the New York Times Co. was trying to unload it for the second time in four years.

The Globe’s marathon coverage — widely praised long before today’s Pulitzers were announced — have defined McGrory’s brief term as editor as surely as the paper’s pedophile-priest coverage (which earned a Pulitzer for Public Service) defined Marty Baron’s. Moreover, the Globe now has a local, deep-pockets owner in John Henry who’s willing to invest in journalism.

But the focus should be on Martin Richard, Krystle Campbell, Lingzi Lu and Sean Collier, as well as their families and all the other survivors. Good for McGrory for reminding everyone of that.

A couple of other Pulitzer notes:

• A lot of observers were waiting to see whether the judges would honor the stories based on the Edward Snowden leaks. They did, as the Pulitzer for Public Service went to The Guardian and The Washington Post.

Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, then affiliated with The Guardian and now with the start-up First Look Media, as well as Barton Gellman of the Post, were the recipients of the Snowden leaks, which revealed a vast U.S. spying apparatus keeping track of ordinary citizens and world leaders both in the United States and abroad.

The choice is bound to be controversial in some circles. U.S. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., has already called the award “a disgrace.” But it was the ultimate example of journalism speaking truth to power, and thus was a worthy choice.

• The oddest move was the Pulitzer judges’ decision not to award a prize in Feature Writing. I thought it might go to the New York Times’ series “Invisible Child: Dasani’s Homeless Life,” or possibly to the Globe’s “The Fall of the House of Tsarnaev.” (I should note that neither of those stories was listed as a finalist.)

The Pulitzer process can be mysterious. But it would be interesting to see if someone can pry some information out of the judges to find out why they believed there wasn’t a single feature story in 2013 worthy of journalism’s highest honor.

Polk Award winners put human faces on statistics

b_kirtzBy Bill Kirtz

Update: On April 14, Eli Saslow, whose work is described below, won the Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting.

Turning a topic into a story. Giving statistics a human face. Upsetting conventional assumptions about life’s winners and losers.

Three series spotlighting social inequality have won one of journalism’s top prizes. At a Long Island University panel discussion last Thursday, George Polk Award-winning reporters detailed how they did it. (Here is the complete list of 2013 winners.)

New York Times reporter Andrea Elliott, a Pulitzer Prize-winning feature writer, was combing the Web for a new subject when she came across these numbers: one in five American children lives in poverty.

Wanting to avoid the debate about adult responsibility for their condition, she decided to write about poverty’s effects on kids.

What’s the “narrative magnet”? she recalls she and her editors asking. What would get readers to read? Their answer: People, not numbers.

After weeks of chatting with women clustered around a filthy Brooklyn homeless shelter, she “found a young mother with a lot to say and who wanted to say it” and her feisty 11-year-old daughter, Dasani.

The more officials tried to bar her from the shelter, the more determined she was to get in.

Once there, she and photographer Ruth Fremson dived into immersion journalism, spending 15 months with the family to produce the nearly 29, 000-word series “Invisible Child.”

Conventional journalistic rules didn’t apply. “‘Off the record’ doesn’t mean anything to these folks,” Elliott said. “My stance is just to hang out with no agenda and try to fade into the background.” She protected people’s privacy by withholding or changing last names.

Elliott’s series, which she’ll expand into a book, focused on the personal, but she stressed the wider economic effects of child poverty. With so large a percentage of the future work force growing up in detrimental circumstances, she said, employers will face major problems finding qualified employees in the future.

Washington Post reporter Eli Saslow also used data to find a story and dogged reporting to make it come alive.

The Pulitzer Prize feature-writing finalist last year said,  “The stories we do at the Post have to be big.” So he sifted through big data: some 47 million Americans get food stamps; the $78 billion program has tripled in the past decade.

Then he turned those numbers into people. “Reporting is sifting information through a funnel,” he said. “That’s the most rewarding part of the job.”

He found that one-third of residents in Woonsocket, R.I., qualify for food stamps. He traveled to Woonsocket; to Tennessee, where he met hungry children; to a Texas county where processed food threatens health; and to a Washington neighborhood facing benefit cuts.

He and photographer Michael S. Williamson found a multi-general cycle of dependency and a whole industry centered around food stamps. Grocery stores hire more workers when they arrive on the eighth of each month. Cabs line up to take package-laden recipients to their houses. Food stamp recruiters try to sign up 150 people a month for the program.

Like Elliott, he handled his subjects with care. “After a while they forget you’re following them,” he said. “It takes a lot of courage to let a stranger into every corner of your life.”

Well, at least the folks who helped cause the 2008 financial crisis lost big-time, right?

Not so much, Alison Fitzgerald and three Center for Public Integrity colleagues found. They detailed Wall Street bigwigs’ loss of jobs but not mansions.

Fitzgerald, who began her career at The Boston Phoenix and won several major awards while at Bloomberg News, said the center’s three-part series began with the question “What’s up with these guys?” as the fifth anniversary of the crisis (which coincides with the statute of limitations on prosecution) approached.

Another question:  What does “they got away with it” mean?

Almost none of the ex-corporate chieftains would talk to them, but one agreed to speak on background. But they got information from golf caddies (about how much or little they tipped) and bridge partners, and from reams of court documents and real-estate transactions.

Tracking most-2008 careers produced one surprise: many top executives are back in the mortgage business.

Bill Kirtz is an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University.

A New Haven-centric view of Digital First’s latest woes

The Register in June 2013, shortly after a redesign.

The Register in June 2013, shortly after a redesign.

This article was published earlier at The Huffington Post.

The end may be near for one of the most widely watched experiments in local journalism.

Early today, Ken Doctor reported at the Nieman Journalism Lab that Digital First Media was pulling the plug on Project Thunderdome, an initiative to provide national and international content to the company’s 75 daily newspapers and other publications and websites. Soon, Doctor added, Digital First’s papers are likely to be sold.

Judging from the reaction on Twitter, the news came as a shock, with many offering their condolences and best wishes to the top-notch digital news innovators who are leaving — including Jim Brady, Robyn Tomlin and Steve Buttry. But for someone who has been watching the Digital First story play out in New Haven for the past five years, what happened today was more a disappointment than a surprise.

I first visited the New Haven Register, a regional daily, in 2009. I was interviewing people for what would become “The Wired City,” a book centered on the New Haven Independent, a nonprofit online-only news site that represents an alternative to the broken advertising-based model that has traditionally supported local journalism. The Register’s corporate chain owner, the Journal Register Co., was in bankruptcy. The paper itself seemed listless and without direction.

Two years later, everything had changed. Journal Register had emerged from bankruptcy and hired a colorful, hard-driving chief executive, John Paton, whose oft-stated philosophy for turning around the newspaper business — “digital first” — became the name of his blog and, eventually, of his expanded empire, formed by the union of Journal Register and MediaNews, the latter best known for its ownership of the Denver Post.

Just before Labor Day in 2011, Matt DeRienzo — then a 35-year-old rising star who had just been put in charge of all of Journal Register’s Connecticut publications, including the New Haven Register — sat down with me and outlined his plans. His predecessor had refused my requests for an interview; DeRienzo, by contrast, had tracked me down because he’d heard I was writing a book. It seemed that a new era of openness and progress had begun.

The openness was for real. The progress, though, proved elusive. For a while, John Paton was the most celebrated newspaper executive in the country, the subject of flattering profiles in the The New York Times, the Columbia Journalism Review and elsewhere. Media reporters were charmed by his blunt profanity, as when he described a presentation he gave to Journal Register managerial employees. “They were like, ‘Who’s the fat guy in the front telling us that we’re broken? Who the fuck is he?’” Paton told the CJR.

In 2012, though, Journal Register declared bankruptcy again — a necessary step, Paton said, as it was the only way he could get costs such as long-term building leases and pension obligations under control. After Journal Register emerged from bankruptcy in 2013, Paton’s moment in the national spotlight seemed to have passed, as media observers turned their attention to a new breed of media moguls like Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos (who bought The Washington Post), Red Sox principal owner John Henry (who bought The Boston Globe), greeting-card executive Aaron Kushner (who acquired the Orange County Register) and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar (who launched a new venture called First Look Media).

Although Digital First’s deepening woes may have escaped national attention, there were signs in New Haven that not all was well. Some positive steps were taken. The print edition was redesigned. The Register website was the beneficiary of a chain-wide refurbishing. Nasty, racist online comments were brought under control, and the newsroom embraced social media. But larger improvements were harder to accomplish.

Among the goals Matt DeRienzo had talked about was moving the paper out of its headquarters, a hulking former shirt factory near Interstate 95, and opening a smaller office in the downtown. In 2012, the Register shut down its printing presses and outsourced the work to the Hartford Courant. The second part of that process never came, though. Just last week, the New Haven Independent reported that the Register had backed away from moving to a former downtown mall facing New Haven Green. Two months earlier, according to the Independent, the Register and Digital First’s other Connecticut publications laid off 10 people.

Neither development should be described as a death knell. The downtown move is reportedly still in the works. And the 10 layoffs were at least partly offset by the creation of six new digitally focused positions. But rather than boldly moving forward, the paper appears to be spinning its wheels. And now — or soon — it may be for sale.

One of the biggest problems Digital First faces is its corporate structure. Can for-profit local journalism truly be reinvented by a national chain whose majority owner — Alden Global Capital — is a hedge fund? People who invest in hedge funds are not generally known for their deep and abiding affection for the idea that quality journalism is essential to democratic self-goverance. Rather, they want their money back — and then some. Preferably as quickly as possible.

No matter how smart, hard-working and well-intentioned John Paton, Jim Brady, Matt DeRienzo et al. may be, the Digital First experiment was probably destined to end this way, as chain ownership generally does. I wish for a good outcome, especially in New Haven. Maybe some civic-minded business leaders will buy the paper and keep DeRienzo as editor. And maybe we’ll all come to understand that the best way to reinvent local journalism is at the local level, by people who are rooted in and care about their community.

Thinking through the Globe’s multi-site strategy

BG frontThis post has also been published at WGBH News.

After I posted an item yesterday speculating that The Boston Globe’s lower paywall might eventually lead to the end of the paper’s two-site strategy, Jack Gately tweeted at me that the Globe actually seems to be going in the opposite direction. With the addition of its BetaBoston site, unveiled on Monday, the paper now has three.

And that’s just the beginning. Soon the Globe will launch a separate site for all things Catholic, in part so that it can showcase its prized new religion reporter, John Allen. Incumbent religion reporter Lisa Wangsness will continue. And yesterday editor Brian McGrory announced that Boston.com community engagement editor and former metro editor Teresa Hanafin will edit the new venture.

So is this a splintering of the Globe’s identity? I don’t think so. And today’s front page may serve as a good indication of how the different sites will work together. The lead story, on private repo companies that are using license-plate scanners, is from BetaBoston, and was written by Shawn Musgrave. He, in turn, is the editor of MuckRock, an independent public-records project that is affiliated with the Globe. (Here’s a 2012 interview I did with MuckRock founder Michael Morisy for the Nieman Journalism Lab. Morisy is also the editor of BetaBoston.)

What the Globe seems to be embracing is a hub-and-spoke model. The Globe, in print and online, is the hub. Spokes reach out to specialty projects such as BetaBoston, the entertainment site BDCWire (part of the Globe’s Radio BDC project), the religion site and whatever else may be in the works. It’s similar to how The New York Times handles Dealbook, or how The Washington Post interacts with Wonkblog, both before and after the departure of Ezra Klein. The idea is to foster semi-free-standing projects that generate a lot of content, some of which migrates along the spokes and into the hub.

That’s quite different from the business strategy of offering the paid BostonGlobe.com site and the free Boston.com. Those are intended as two entirely different ventures, and McGrory’s memo yesterday made it clear that they are going to be separated even more going forward.

Six takeaways from BoMag’s big John Henry profile

John Henry

John Henry

This article was posted earlier at WGBH News.

The local media community has been buzzing since Tuesday, when Jason Schwartz’s 5,000-word Boston magazine article on the state of The Boston Globe under John Henry went live. The piece is chock-full of goodies, and you should read the whole thing. As you do, here are six takeaways for you to ponder.

1. It could have been a lot worse. Although we knew that Douglas Manchester, the right-wing hotel magnate who bought the San Diego Union-Tribune and unforgivably renamed it U-T San Diego, was interested in buying the Globe (he even threatened legal action after it was sold to Henry instead of him), it is nevertheless chilling to read Schwartz’s account of Manchester’s coming in and kicking the tires after the New York Times Co. put the Globe up for sale.

As I wrote in my book about online community journalism, “The Wired City,” Manchester has been described as “a minor-league Donald Trump” who uses his newspaper to promote his business interests as well as conservative causes such as his opposition to same-sex marriage.

In the Boston magazine article, Globe editor Brian McGrory tells Schwartz that “some potential bidders” — and by “some,” it’s clear that he’s including Manchester — would have “cut the living bejesus out of the place.” And Schwartz includes this delicious anecdote: “During the U-T San Diego presentation, people who were in the room attest, Manchester at one point instructed McGrory to call him ‘Papa Doug.’ McGrory did not call him Papa Doug.”

2. It’s official: The Globe is moving. Even before Henry won the Globe sweepstakes, it was clear that the next owner was likely to sell the paper’s 1950s-era Dorchester headquarters for redevelopment — a move that would presumably recoup virtually all of the $70 million Henry paid to purchase the Globe, the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester and related properties.

Henry has now made it official, telling Schwartz his goal is to move the paper to a smaller space with better access “in the heart of the city.”

Of course, the Globe still needs a printing press, not only for its own use but for other publications it prints under contract — including its tabloid rival, the Boston Herald. One likely possibility: the Telegram & Gazette’s printing facility in Millbury, which Henry said he was keeping when he announced recently that he was putting the T&G up for sale.

3. The two-website strategy needs an overhaul. Since the fall of 2011, the Globe has offered two websites: BostonGlobe.com, a paid-subscription site offering Globe content and a few extras; and Boston.com, a free site that’s been around since the mid-1990s.

The problem, Schwartz tells us, is that Boston.com, stripped of most Globe content, has been struggling, while BostonGlobe.com hasn’t produced as much revenue as Globe executives would like. The next step: a looser paywall for BostonGlobe.com to encourage more social sharing and a mobile-first Boston.com that’s still in development. (Joshua Benton has more at the Nieman Journalism Lab.)

4. Henry wants to reinvent the newspaper business. This week’s New Yorker includes a rather dispiriting account by George Packer of how Jeff Bezos and Amazon.com took over the book business. Anyone looking for signs that Bezos has a clear idea of what to do with The Washington Post, which he agreed to buy just days after Henry’s purchase of the Globe was announced, will come away disappointed — although he is, to his credit, spending money on the Post.

By contrast, Henry comes across as energized, bristling with ideas — peppering Brian McGrory with emails at all hours of the night — and getting ready to unveil new products, such as standalone websites that cover religion, innovation and other topics.

“I wanted to be a part of finding the solution for the Globe and newspapers in general,” Henry tells Schwartz. “I feel my mortality. I don’t want to waste any of the time I have left, and I felt this was a cause worth fighting for.”

5. Mike Barnicle is lurking off stage. If you were worried when you spotted Barnicle with Henry during the World Series, well, you were right to be. Barnicle, who left the Globe in 1998 after a career full of ethical missteps finally caught up with him, really does have Henry’s ear — and even supplied him with the email address of John Allen, the National Catholic Reporter journalist whom Henry successfully talked into coming to the Globe.

The old reprobate hasn’t changed, either, supplying Schwartz with a great quote that artfully combines religion with an F-bomb.

6. The executive team is now in place. By accepting publisher Christopher Mayer’s resignation, naming himself publisher and bringing in former Hill Holliday president Mike Sheehan as his chief executive officer, Henry has completed a series of moves that have remade the top layer of Globe leadership. McGrory is staying. Andrew Perlmutter, who made his bones at Atlantic Media and The Daily Beast, has replaced Jeff Moriarty, who left for a job in Britain, as the Globe’s chief digital strategist.

That’s not to rule out further change, especially if Henry’s goals aren’t met. But the sense you get is that Henry — to use a Red Sox analogy — now has his Larry Lucchino/Ben Cherington/John Farrell triumvirate in place. No doubt they all realize that winning a world championship is a lot easier than finding a profitable way forward for the beleaguered newspaper business.

Headlines distort CBO report on Obamacare

The reaction to a Congressional Budget Office report released Tuesday demonstrated how easily politicians are able to game the media system.

The CBO, a respected source of nonpartisan data, found that the Affordable Care Act would lead to the disappearance of more than 2 million jobs — nearly all of them because people will choose to stop working or cut back on their hours now that their health insurance is no longer dependent on their continued employment. CBO director Douglas Elmendorf put it this way:

I want to emphasize that that reduction doesn’t mean that that many people precisely will choose to leave the labor force. We think that some people will chose to work fewer hours. Other people will choose to leave the labor force.

Of course, that didn’t stop Republican opponents from claiming that the CBO report proves the ACA is a job-killer. And why not? The media are so quick to go along. Let’s consider that this is Elmendorf’s report, and he said at a news conference precisely what it meant. Yet the very NPR story in which his remarks are quoted is headlined “Is Obamacare A Job Killer? New Estimates Suggest It Might Be.” Gah.

This morning I looked at the front pages of four major dailies. Here’s how they stack up, in order of disingenuousness.

Screen Shot 2014-02-05 at 10.22.25 AM

1. The Boston Globe. “Health law projected to put a dent in workforce; GOP calls analysis proof of act’s failings.” The clear impression is that people are going to lose their jobs because of the ACA. If you would like to believe that, go right ahead — but it’s not what the CBO said. The Globe headline is slapped atop a New York Times story (below) that isn’t nearly that bad.

Screen Shot 2014-02-05 at 10.20.05 AM

2. The New York Times. “Health Care Law Projected to Cut the Labor Force; Choosing Not to Work; G.O.P. Seizes On Data — Drop May Equal 2.5 Million Jobs.” Whew! Try saying it all without taking a breath. The Times’ headlines is slightly better than the Globe’s: the second deck, “Choosing Not to Work,” gets at the gist of the CBO report. But the rest of it makes it sound like Tuesday was a very bad day for the ACA. You’ve got to read the story to find out what’s really going on.

Screen Shot 2014-02-05 at 10.21.24 AM

3. The Washington Post. “New fuel for the health-law fight; CBO: More will quit jobs, cut hours; Estimates revive debate over economic effects.” Not bad. The impression given by the headline is that the fight is over the economic effect of people quitting their jobs. Not quite right, but we’re getting closer. Here’s the story.

Screen Shot 2014-02-05 at 10.21.57 AM

4. The Wall Street Journal. “Health Law to Cut Into Labor Force; Report Forecasts More People Will Opt to Work Less as They Seek Coverage Through Affordable Care Act.” Folks, we have a winner — a headline that accurately reflects what the CBO actually said. Good story, too. (To get around the Journal’s paywall, enter the headline at Google News. Don’t worry. Rupert knows about it and says it’s OK.)

The problem with deceptive or incomplete headlines is that few people get past them or the partisan attacks they reflect. What House Speaker John Boehner (quoted in the Times story) said is simply flat-out wrong: “The middle class is getting squeezed in this economy, and this CBO report confirms that Obamacare is making it worse.”

As U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., put it in a conversation with reporters (also quoted in the Times): “You guys are going to politicize it no matter what happens.”

Journalists need to resist the urge.

Headline images via the Newseum’s “Today’s Front Pages.”

Globe editor McGrory gets vote of confidence

The Boston Business Journal has an interview with new Boston Globe chief executive Mike Sheehan, who tells Jon Chesto that he’s a fan of Globe editor Brian McGrory.

So it would appear that McGrory’s job is safe — as it should be. He’s done a terrific job in the year-plus he’s served since taking over for Marty Baron, now the top editor at The Washington Post.

Washington Post to expand staff and ambitions

Then-Boston Globe editor on WGBH-TV (Channel 2) in 2009.

Marty Baron (2009 file photo)

The Washington Post faced a lot of questions after Ezra Klein packed up and took his talents to Vox Media. Were Jeff Bezos and company making a Politico-level mistake in not finding a way to keep Klein, the founder of Wonkblog, under its own roof? Or was Klein making unreasonable demands — reportedly a $10 million investment for a much bigger staff?

My own view is that the two sides should have found a way to keep Klein loosely affiliated with the Post, although I have no way of knowing whether that was a realistic option.

In any event, I’m burying the lede. On Wednesday the Post went a long way toward answering those questions by announcing a significant investment in its news operations. Wonkblog will continue. And according to a memo to the staff from executive editor Marty Baron, a considerable amount of hiring and expansion is under way, including more blogs, a breaking-news desk and an expanded Sunday magazine.

“With these initiatives, we can all look forward to a future of great promise,” Baron wrote. (Thanks to Jim Romenesko, who also links to a Washingtonian story in which Post publisher Katharine Weymouth offers further insight into Klein’s departure.)

In an interview with Ravi Somaiya of The New York Times, Baron says of Bezos: “He hasn’t been passive. He’s heavily engaged, keenly interested in what our ideas are. He offered his own thoughts and expressed a willingness to invest.”

These are very good signs at a time when the news about the news is more favorable than anything we’ve heard in years (Patch’s latest near-death experience notwithstanding). Whether such optimism is warranted will be the media story of 2014 and beyond.

Photo is a screen grab from an appearance then-Boston Globe editor Baron made on WGBH-TV’s “Greater Boston with Emily Rooney” in 2009.

Volokh’s ‘joint venture’ points toward a new model

David Carr has the details of Wonkblog founder Ezra Klein’s new venture.

I recently argued in the Nieman Journalism Lab that legacy news organizations like The Washington Post should find ways of forming loose networks that would include partnerships with stars like Klein rather than traditional employment/ownership arrangements. That may not have been feasible with Klein specifically, but it’s a model that ought to be considered.

So I find it interesting that, last week, the Post began hosting The Volokh Conspiracy, a libertarian blog that’s been around since 2002. In a message to his readers, Eugene Volokh describes the arrangement as a “joint venture.” He writes:

We will also retain full editorial control over what we write [his emphasis]. And this full editorial control will be made easy by the facts that we have (1) day jobs, (2) continued ownership of our trademark and the volokh.com domain, and (3) plenty of happy experience blogging on our own, should the need arise to return to that.

Of course, Klein’s ambitions are a lot bigger than Volokh’s, and reportedly came with an eight-figure price tag. By contrast, the Volokh move would appear to present little risk for Post owner Jeff Bezos. Still, Carr’s assertion that the Post “has long-festering problems with its core business” left me wondering why Bezos didn’t see Klein as part of the solution to those problems.

Update: According to the Post’s Paul Farhi, Klein never pitched Bezos directly. The major issue, Farhi reports, was how much independence the Post was willing to give Klein.

Can Aaron Kushner go the distance?

Aaron Kushner speaking in April 2013 at California State University, Fullerton.

Aaron Kushner speaking in April 2013 at California State University, Fullerton.

This commentary was published earlier at The Huffington Post.

Has Orange County Register owner Aaron Kushner run into nothing more than a bit of turbulence from which he can recover? Or do the layoffs he announced last week show that his plan to resuscitate the newspaper business by hiring more journalists and doubling down on print is fundamentally flawed?

I hope it’s the former — not just because I’d like to see him prove everybody wrong (including me) about the future of news, but because I’m planning to include him in a book about a new breed of media moguls who are using their personal wealth and smarts to innovate their way toward a brighter future. (News of the layoffs was broken by Gustavo Arellano of OC Weekly, which has taken a jaundiced view of Kushner’s ownership.)

Trouble is, there have been hints previously that Kushner, 40, lacked the sheer financial firepower of Boston Globe owner John Henry or Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos. I’ll get to that in a moment. But first, a little background on what’s unfolding in Southern California.

Kushner, who bought the Register in 2012 for $50 million, was the most celebrated new newspaper owner in the country before he was eclipsed in August of last year by Bezos and Henry. “Can Aaron Kushner save the Orange County Register — and the newspaper industry?” asked the Columbia Journalism Review last May. As CJR’s Ryan Chittum explained it, Kushner’s vision was based on:

  • Lavish attention to the print product, including more pages and an upgrade in the quality of paper.
  • A move away from free or even reduced-price content online, with Internet users paying exactly the same fees as print subscribers.
  • An increase in the size of the newsroom staff, as he added 140 journalists to the 180 who were there when he bought the paper.

Nor was Kushner content with pumping up the Orange County Register. Last August he started a new daily, the Long Beach Register. He bought The Press-Enterprise of Riverside. And in his most audacious move yet, he announced plans to start a Los Angeles Register to compete with the Los Angeles Times, once among the best newspapers in the country and still formidable. (LA is also home to a second paper, the Los Angeles Daily News.)

Then, last week, came a significant setback. Not everyone agrees on the figures, but Ken Bensinger of the LA Times reported that Kushner laid off about 35 people at the Orange County Register and 39 at The Press-Enterprise. Register editor Ken Brusic and other top editors left. Rob Curley, who had overseen digital initiatives at papers at the Washington Post and the Las Vegas Sun, was promoted to the top position.

“We are evaluating our cost structure for the next leg of our journey in terms of covering Orange County and LA County,” Kushner told New York Times media columnist David Carr, who noted that Kushner plans to plunge ahead with his idea for a Los Angeles paper without adding any staff. Carr wrote:

By amortizing the costs of all the journalists he hired over a bigger market, he can achieve savings in terms of production while adding marginal readers and advertising.

He clearly sees himself as a smart entrepreneur making bold bets. I see a man on a wire, with millions of dollars and hundreds of jobs at stake.

As for past hints that Kushner may not be well-heeled enough to play the long game, you may recall that, several years ago, he tried to buy The Boston Globe. (The Globe’s then-owner, the New York Times Co., apparently showed no interest, and Kushner later struck out on a bid to purchase Maine’s Portland Press Herald.)

Before Kushner gave up on his Globe dream, though, Katherine Ozment wrote an in-depth profile of him for Boston magazine. Among other things, Ozment attempted to show precisely how Kushner had made a fortune in the greeting-card business, his major claim to fame up to that time. What she found was a haze of acquisitions, layoffs and charges (which Kushner denied) that he was late in paying artists, sales reps and the like.

Eventually Kushner left his company after some sort of falling-out with the investors, though he told Ozment he remained part of ownership. “I had a vision for the business, and they had a very different vision, and they controlled the working capital, so we decided to move on,” he said.

Despite that possible warning sign, it has to be noted that the Orange County Register remains a much more richly staffed paper today than when Kushner bought it. In a memo to his staff published by the blog LA Observed after the layoffs were announced, Kushner wrote that he now has 370 journalists — uh, make that “content team members” — covering Orange County and Los Angeles County, up from 198 a year and a half ago.

An optimistic take would be that Kushner got ahead of himself and is now retrenching, but not retreating. No doubt we’ll know a lot more as 2014 unfolds.

Photo (cc) by CSUF Photos and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.