Recently I had the opportunity to record a podcast about my Shorenstein paper on the Washington Post under Jeff Bezos with CBS News legend Bob Schieffer and Andrew Schwartz of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Our conversation was posted on Thursday.
My Shorenstein paper is part of a book project with a working title of The Return of the Moguls, which will be about the Post under Bezos, the Boston Globe under Red Sox principal owner John Henry, and the Orange County Register under entrepreneur Aaron Kushner, to be published by ForeEdge in 2017.
Schieffer and Schwartz’s podcast, “About the News,” offers regular updates about various media topics. It’s available at iTunes.
Hard to believe, but my time as a Joan Shorenstein Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School will be ending soon. Recently I recorded an HKS PolicyCast podcast under the expert guidance of host Matt Cadwallader. We talked about my research regarding wealthy newspaper owners and whether the innovations they’ve introduced may show the way for others. I hope you’ll give it a listen.
As I’ve written before, I’m working on a book that will largely be about three such owners—Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, who bought the Washington Post in 2013; Red Sox principal owner John Henry, who announced he would purchase the Boston Globe just three days before Bezos made his move; and greeting-card executive Aaron Kushner, whose time as publisher of the Orange County Register ended in 2015, but whose print-centric approach made him perhaps the most closely watched newspaper owner of 2012-’13.
Bezos and the Post will be the subject of the paper I’m writing for Shorenstein, so—in case any of you folks at the Globe were wondering—I’ve suspended my reporting on the Globe for the time being. I’ll be back.
Digital news pioneer Rob Curley is out as editor of the Orange County Register, whose acquisition by Digital First Media was completed earlier today. The story was broken by the Orange County Business Journal.
Gustavo Arellano, the editor of OC Weekly, adds that some 50 to 70 employees are losing their jobs at the Register and its sister paper, the Riverside Press-Enterprise. These are “mostly on the sales, circulation, and marketing side,” Arellano writes, a sign that Digital First—which also owns several other papers in Southern California—is consolidating its business operations.
A little more than a year ago I spent a good chunk of a day at the Register as part of my book project. Curley, who made his bones as an early digital guy at the Lawrence Journal-World a dozen years ago, followed by stops at the Washington Post and the Las Vegas Sun (among other places), allowed me to spend a considerable amount of time with him and answered all questions. However, it was completely off the record, so I can’t share with you anything I learned. I can tell you it wasn’t all that eventful.
The next day, Kushner—who had tried to purchase the Boston Globe and Maine’s Portland Press Herald before leading a group that bought the Register in 2012—stepped down a day before I was to interview him. Kushner’s emphasis on print, and his head-turning moves to hire staff and buy and launch newspapers (including a short-lived daily in Los Angeles), earned him national recognition. Unfortunately, a shortage of funds led him to dismantle what he had built in very short order.
Digital First bought the Register and the Press-Enterprise for $49.8 million after the US Department of Justice convinced a federal judge that a higher bid by Tribune Publishing, which owns the Los Angeles Times and the San Diego Union Tribune, should be rejected because it would reduce competition.
It struck a number of observers, including me, that the government was engaged in outdated thinking that no longer applied to the shrinking, money-losing newspaper business. Tribune has gone through numerous gyrations over the years, but the LA Times has remained an excellent newspaper. It almost certainly would have been a better steward of the Register and the Press-Enterprise than Digital First.
I thought I should say a few words about what I’m up to.
For the next year, I’ll be on sabbatical from Northeastern as I work on a book about how three business people who are passionate about newspapers are using their wealth to reinvent their papers and possibly to show the way for others. They are John Henry of The Boston Globe, Jeff Bezos of The Washington Post and Aaron Kushner of the Orange County Register. Kushner is no longer running the Register, but the print-centric orientation he took during his time at the helm has much to tell us.
My project actually became public two years ago when the Globe somehow got word. That item has proved useful in helping me to line up interviews. But only now am I embarking on the bulk of my reporting. I lost a year when I agreed to serve as interim director of Northeastern’s School of Journalism following the death of my friend and mentor Steve Burgard. Steve’s death was a difficult blow. In terms of the book, though, the delay may prove to be a good thing, as it seems to me that Henry’s and Bezos’ visions are still coming into focus.
I have a contract with University Press of New England and a year that should be (I hope) free of distractions. I’m excited to push ahead.
Late Tuesday afternoon I was at the Los Angeles Times, interviewing people about the state of the Orange County Register, when suddenly the word came down.
Aaron Kushner, who’d bought the paper in 2012 and presided over a dizzying expansion and stomach-churning retrenchment, was stepping down from his executive role. His co-owner, Eric Spitz, was moving to a reduced role. And Richard Mirman, a former casino executive who’d been brought in as publisher last fall, would become president and chief executive officer of the Register’s parent company, Freedom Communications.
The Register covers the story here; the Times here; and OC Weekly here.
I had traveled to Southern California to do some reporting on Kushner’s stewardship of the Register. I visited the paper on Monday and sat in on a news meeting. I am — no kidding — scheduled to interview Kushner later today, a meeting that took weeks to set up. I’m going to keep my appointment and see if he or anyone else will see me.
Kushner, who tried to buy The Boston Globe and then the Portland Press Herald of Maine, was widely portrayed as either a savior of the newspaper business or a naive idealist after he assumed the reins at the Register. He emphasized print over digital and more than doubled the size of the newsroom. But his moves became increasingly hard to understand. He bought The Press-Enterprise of Riverside, then launched new dailies in Long Beach and Los Angeles.
Starting more than a year ago, the expansion was reversed. Layoffs and buyouts commenced. The LA and Long Beach papers were closed. And the Register’s plant in Santa Ana was sold for $27 million.
The situation right now is confusing and fluid. In reading the Times’ and the Register’s coverage, it seems that Kushner, Spitz and Mirman all have ownership shares. Media business analyst Ken Doctor tells the Times that Mirman’s job “is to steady the place and to get it ready for another owner.”
The downward spiral of Aaron Kushner and the Orange County Register continues, reports Christine Haughney of The New York Times. The latest — a round-up of what has appeared elsewhere — includes unpaid bills, lawsuits, Kushner’s stepping aside as publisher (“I was not removed,” he insists) and, of course, Kushner’s soothing reassurances that everything is on track.
In April, when Orange County Register publisher Aaron Kushner launched the Los Angeles Register, the bloom was already off the rose. (Here’s what I wrote in June.) So it’s not really a surprise that Kushner is shutting down the misbegotten daily. Andrew Khouri of the Los Angeles Times has the details.
And here’s the inevitable quote from Kushner and his business partner Eric Spitz about all those darn naysayers:
Pundits and local competitors who have closely followed our entry into Los Angeles will be quick to criticize our decision to launch a new newspaper and they will say that we failed. We believe, the true definition of failure is not taking bold steps toward growth.
On the East Coast, The Washington Post is in the midst of a revival that could return the storied newspaper to its former status as a serious competitor to The New York Times for national and international news. On the West Coast, the Orange County Register is rapidly sinking into the pit from which it had only recently crawled.
The two contrasting stories are told by the Columbia Journalism Review’s Michael Meyer, who writes about the Post in the early months of the Jeff Bezos era, and Gustavo Arellano of OC Weekly, who’s been all over Aaron Kushner since his arrival as the Register’s principal owner in 2012.
First the Post, which has been the subject of considerable fascination since Amazon founder Bezos announced last August (just a few days after John Henry said he would buy The Boston Globe) that he would purchase the paper from the Graham family for $250 million.
Bezos’ vision, as best as Meyer could discern (Bezos, as is his wont, did not give him an interview), is to leave the journalists alone and work on ways to expand the Post’s digital audience across a variety of platforms. Meyer describes a meeting that Bezos held in Seattle with executive editor Marty Baron and other top managers:
Baron says he came away from the weekend in Seattle with a clear sense of what the Post’s mission would be in the coming year: It had to have “a more expansive national vision” in order to achieve the ultimate goal of substantially growing its digital audience. Baron brought this directive back to the newsroom, and the editors set about building a plan for 2014, a year managing editor Kevin Merida dubbed “the year of ambition.” At one point in the budgeting process, Bezos even admonished the leadership for not thinking big enough. “I think that we had been in the mode of sort of watching our pennies,” Baron told me. “We were just being more cautious at the beginning so he came back with an indication that we should be more ambitious.”
Among the more perplexing moves (to me at least) that the Post has made under Bezos has been to cut deals with more than 100 daily papers across the country so that paid subscribers to those papers would receive free digital access to the Post as well. Locally, the papers include the Portland Press Herald as well as Digital First Media’s papers, such as The Sun of Lowell, The Berkshire Eagle and the New Haven Register.
Journalistically, it’s a good deal for subscribers, since they get free access to a high-quality national news source. But no money changes hands. So how is it any better for the Post than simply offering a free advertiser-supported website, as it did until instituting a metered paywall last year? Meyer tells me by email that “the reason they are doing this is for customer data. A logged in, regular user is a lot more data rich than someone who just happens across your site from time to time.” He adds:
Data is the key difference between this program and just having a free website. And another key difference to my mind is psychological. The readers of partner newspapers feel like they’re being given something that would otherwise not be free. This adds value in terms of how they view their subscriptions to their home newspapers. And also adds value in terms of how they view the Post’s content. My guess is they will use the service more as a result.
And as Meyer writes in his story, “Anyone interested in seeing how consumer data might be used in the hands of Jeff Bezos can go to Amazon.com and watch the company’s algorithms try to predict their desires.”
The story Gustavo Arellano tells about Aaron Kushner and the Orange County Register has become well-known in recent weeks, in large measure because of Arellano’s own coverage in the OC Weekly. Kushner has spent 2014 rapidly dismantling what he spent 2012 and 2013 building up.
As I wrote recently in The Huffington Post, it makes no sense to invest in growth unless you have enough money to wait and see how it plays out, which is clearly the case with Bezos at the Post and Henry at the Globe — and which now is clearly not the case with Kushner and the Register.
The Orange County meltdown was also the subject of an unusually nasty blog post earlier this month by Clay Shirky, who criticized Ryan Chittum of the CJR and Ken Doctor of Newsonomics and the Nieman Journalism Lab for overlooking the weaknesses in Kushner’s expansion. (Chittum and Doctor wrote detailed, thoughtful responses, and I’ve linked to both of them in the comments of a piece I wrote about the kerfuffle for WGBHNews.org.)
Arellano has gotten hold of some internal documents that make it clear that Kushner’s expansionary dreams were doomed from the start. He also paints a picture of a poisoned newsroom and offers lots of anonymous quotes to back it up.
“I wouldn’t say I got hoodwinked,” he quotes one former staff member as saying, “but it’s just another lesson of life: If it’s too good to be true, it is.”
I recently criticized Arellano for his overreliance on anonymous quotes, although I freely concede that I used them regularly when I was covering the media for The Boston Phoenix in the 1990s and the early ’00s. This time, he includes a clear explanation of why almost none of his sources would go on the record: fear of “reprisal or the endangerment of their buyout, which included a nondisclosure clause.” Given that, I think the story is stronger with the quotes than without.
In retrospect, it seems obvious Kushner set himself up for failure, like a Jenga tower depending on every precariously placed block. He installed himself as publisher despite having no previous newspaper experience. A hard paywall — his most controversial move — was erected to force readers to buy the print edition in an era when online content is king. To justify that, Kushner plunged into a hiring binge that saw the Register sign up hundreds of employees even though it didn’t have the revenue to pay them. To fund his vision, the sales department was tasked with selling all those points despite an industry-wide decline in print advertising during the past decade.
It’s a sad, ugly moment for a tale that began so optimistically. As for whether this will prove to be the end of the story — well, it sure looks that way, although Kushner insists he’s merely slowed down. After two years of hiring binges and layoffs, the launch and virtual folding of the Long Beach Register, and the inexplicably odd decision to start a Los Angeles Register to compete with the mighty Times, Kushner is clearly down to his last chance — if that.
Five years ago Clay Shirky wrote an eloquent blog post titled “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable.” His essential argument was that we were only at the very beginning of trying to figure out new models for journalism following the cataclysmic changes wrought by the Internet — like Europeans in the decades immediately following the invention of Gutenberg’s press. Along with a subsequent talk he gave at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, Shirky helped me frame the ideas that form the foundation of “The Wired City,” my book about online community journalism.
Now Shirky has written a rant. In “Nostalgia and Newspapers,” posted on Tuesday, the New York University professor and author wants us to know that we’re not getting it fast enough — that print is dead, and anything that diverts us from the hard work of figuring out what’s next is a dangerous distraction. His targets range from Aaron Kushner and his alleged apologists to journalism-school professors who are supposedly letting their students get away with thinking that print can somehow be saved.
As always, Shirky offers a lot to think about, as he did at a recent panel discussion at WGBH. I don’t take issue with the overarching arguments he makes in “Nostalgia and Newspapers.” But I do want to offer a countervailing view on some of the particulars.
1. Good journalism schools are not print-centric: Shirky writes that he “exploded” when he was recently asked by an NYU student, in front of the class, “So how do we save print?” I assume Shirky is exaggerating his reaction for effect. It wasn’t a terrible question, and in any case there was no reason for him to embarrass a student in front of her classmates. I’m sure he didn’t.
More important, Shirky takes the view that students haven’t given up on print because no one had given it to them straight until he came along to tell them otherwise. He writes that he told the students that “print was in terminal decline and that everyone in the class needed to understand this if they were thinking of journalism as a major or a profession.” And he attributed their nostalgic views to “Adults lying to them.”
Now, I find it hard to believe that Shirky’s take on the decline of print was novel to journalism students at a progressive institution like NYU. And from what I’ve seen from my own small perch within academia, all of us are looking well beyond print. In the new issue of Nieman Reports, Jon Marcus surveys changes in journalism education (including the media innovation program for graduate students headed by my Northeastern colleague Jeff Howe that will begin this fall). Citing a recent survey by Poynter, Marcus writes that, in many cases, j-schools are actually ahead of professional newsrooms in pushing for digital change:
A recent Poynter survey — which some argue demonstrates that educators are outpacing editors in their approaches to digital innovation — underlines the divide between j-schools and newsrooms. Educators are more likely than professional journalists to believe it’s important for journalism graduates to have multimedia skills, for instance, according to the survey Poynter released in April. They are more likely to think it’s crucial for j-school grads to understand HTML and other computer languages, and how to shoot and edit video and photos, record audio, tell stories with visuals, and write for different platforms.
Could we be doing better? No doubt. But we’re already doing a lot.
2. Aaron Kushner might have been on to something. OK, I’m pushing it here. There’s no doubt that Kushner’s moves after he bought the Orange County Register in 2012 have blown up in his face — the hiring spree, the launching of new daily newspapers in Long Beach and Los Angeles, the emphasis on print. Earlier this month, it all seemed to be coming to a very bad end, though Kushner himself says he simply needs time to retrench.
But Kushner’s ideas may not have been entirely beyond the realm of reality. Over the past several decades, great newspapers have been laid low by debt-addled chains trying to squeeze every last drop of profit out of them. This long-term disinvestment has had at least as harmful an effect on the news business as the Internet-driven loss of advertising revenues. Yes, Kushner’s love of print seems — well, odd, although it’s also true that newspapers continue to derive most of their shrinking advertising revenues from print. But investing in growth, even without a clear plan (or, rather, even with an ever-changing plan), strikes me as exactly what we ought to hope news(paper) companies will do. After all, that’s what Jeff Bezos is doing at The Washington Post and John Henry at The Boston Globe. And that’s not to say there won’t be layoffs and downsizing along the way.
Shirky also mocks Ryan Chittum of the Columbia Journalism Review and Ken Doctor, a newspaper analyst and blogger who writes for the Nieman Journalism Lab, writing that they “wrote puff pieces for Kushner, because they couldn’t bear to treat him like the snake-oil salesman he is.” (Shirky does concede that Chittum offered some qualifications.)
Chittum recently disagreed with me merely for writing that he had “hailed their [Kushner’s and his business partner Eric Spitz’s] print-centric approach.” It will be interesting to see whether and how he and Doctor respond to Shirky. I’ll be watching. Chittum has already posted this.
In any case, I hardly think it was “terrible” (Shirky’s description) for Chittum and Doctor to play down their doubts given that Kushner, a smart, seemingly well-funded outsider, claimed to have a better way.
Post-publication updates. After this commentary was published at WGBH News on Wednesday, the reactions, as expected, started rolling in. First up: Chittum, who apologized for his F-bomb, though not the sentiment behind it.
by the way, apologies to @cshirky for the f u thing. the “lying” line in that nasty piece, but that’s no excuse. #breathe
A week after Aaron Kushner announced major cuts at the Orange County Register and its affiliated papers, it sounds like the wheels may be coming off. In an interview with Larry Mantle of Southern California Public Radio, Kushner kept insisting that the cuts were nothing but a temporary setback, saying:
To continue to invest and grow over the long term, we have to align our cost structure with what we now know we can achieve in revenue growth. Doing so will not be easy and will impact all of us, but it is necessary to ensure a strong and healthy future for our newspapers.
But Mantle was having none of it. He pressed Kushner on the all-but-closing of the start-up Long Beach Register and asked him if he expected his newest paper, the Los Angeles Register, to compete seriously with the Los Angeles Times. Kushner’s answers might best be described as on message to a fault, leading to this testy exchange near the end:
Mantle: I have to say, if I worked for you, hearing your description and the lack of specifics, I’d be very nervous about the future.
Kushner: Any other questions?
Meanwhile, Gustavo Arellano, editor of the OC Weekly, an alternative paper that has been so dubious of Kushner’s plans that it even has a blog category called “OC Register Death Watch,” posted a scorcher on Monday, reporting that the Register’s staff is all but fleeing toward the exits. Arellano quotes a “longtimer” as saying of Kushner, “He’s lost the newsroom. No one has any faith in him at all. People want to get the hell out while they can.”
(An aside: If everything is truly coming apart, why did the “longtimer” think it was necessary to remain anonymous? And why did Arellano go ahead and quote him anyway? Look, I’ve been there and done that. And there’s no reason to think the quote doesn’t reflect the genuine sentiment of the newsroom. But I’m more skeptical of anonymous quotes these days than I used to be, and I think readers are too.)
I continue to hope that Kushner and his business partner, Eric Spitz, can right their leaking ship. But the simplest explanation for what is happening is that Kushner never had a real plan — he simply thought that all he had to do was spend lavishly and readers and advertisers would flock to his side.
Newspaper analyst Ken Doctor, whom I would characterize as a sympathetic Kushner observer up until now, weighed in with a devastating piece last week. I linked to it then, and here it is again. I recommend it highly.