“The Return of the Moguls” hasn’t been officially released yet (that will come on March 6), but it’s already generated a Twitter battle between the Southern California-based journalist Gustavo Arellano and Eric Spitz, who, along with Aaron Kushner, are former owners of the Orange County Register.
I interviewed Arellano, then the editor of the OC Weekly, and Spitz (and Kushner) about the Register, which under Kushner and Spitz’s leadership added about 150 newsroom jobs only to go bankrupt just three years after their investment group bought the paper. The Twitter action began earlier this afternoon:
Hi Gustavo. I'm so glad that Dan chose that quote from me. I called you a scumbag because you have lost your journalistic ethics while covering us.
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.”
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.
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.
If you’re going to make an audacious bet on the future of newspapers, as Aaron Kushner did with the Orange County Register, then it stands to reason that you should have enough money in the bank to be able to wait and see how it plays out.
Kushner, unfortunately, is now slashing costs at his newspapers almost as quickly as he built them up. On Tuesday, Kushner announced that Register employees would be required to take unpaid two-week furloughs during June and July. Other cuts were announced as well. The most significant: buyouts for up to 100 employees; and one of Kushner’s startup dailies, the Long Beach Register, will more or less be folded into another, the Los Angeles Register.
Those cuts follow the elimination of some 70 jobs at the OC Register and the Press-Enterprise of Riverside in January — cuts that came not long after a year when Kushner’s papers, in a celebrated hiring spree, added 170 jobs.
In 2013 Kushner and his business partner, Eric Spitz, were the toast of the newspaper industry. In the Columbia Journalism Review, Ryan Chittum hailed their print-centric approach and hypothesized that being able to scoop up the Register debt-free might enable them to succeed where others — including Tribune Co. and the Journal Register Co. — had failed. “Kushner,” Chittum wrote, “had the benefit of buying Register parent Freedom Communications out of bankruptcy — after newspaper valuations had already fallen 90 percent in some cases.”
Spitz, in a cocksure interview last October with Lauren Indvik of Mashable, mocked his competitors for giving their journalism away online, insisting that he and Kushner had a better idea.
“The key decisions they made — and they were the worst decisions anyone has made in my memory — they made 20 years or so ago. They took their core product, the news, and priced it at free,” Spitz told Indvik, adding: “I think 20 years later the amount of revenue you can derive from advertising is less than they thought. But the bigger problem they created is telling your customer that your product has no value.”
Unfortunately for Spitz and Kushner, there are few signs that their strategy of pumping up their print editions (even improving the paper stock) while walling off their digital content behind relatively inflexible paywalls has paid off.
According to the Alliance for Audited Media, paid circulation at the Orange County Register for the six months ending Sept. 30, 2011, before Kushner and Spitz took charge, averaged 283,997 on Sundays and 172,942 Monday through Saturday. The sale took place in July 2012. That September, paid circulation actually rose, to 301,576 on Sundays and 175,851 the rest of the week. But in September 2013 it dropped below pre-Kushner levels, to 274,737 on Sundays and 162,894 the other six days. (I am excluding what AAM refers to as “branded editions” — mainly regional weeklies published by the Register. The numbers combine print and paid digital circulation, which, in the case of the Register, is negligible.)
Kushner is a Boston-area native who made his money in the greeting-card business. Before his move to Southern California, he tried to buy The Boston Globe and, later, nearly closed a deal to purchase the Portland Press Herald of Maine. So it’s interesting to note that Red Sox principal owner John Henry, who eventually won the sweepstakes for the Globe, has taken a very different approach from Kushner, sinking money into an online-only vertical covering innovation and technology as well as repositioning the paper’s venerable free Boston.com site as a “younger, voicier, edgier” complement to the Globe. Soon the Globe is expected to unveil an ambitious website covering the Catholic Church in the hopes of attracting a national and international audience.
Perhaps the most important difference between Henry and Kushner, though, is the depth of their pockets. There are limits to Kushner’s wealth, and those limits are becoming apparent as he attempts to make his newspaper mini-empire profitable. Henry, a billionaire investor, can afford to take the long view. In that respect, he is more like Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, who announced that he would buy the Washington Post just days after Henry said he would acquire the Globe.
Ryan Chittum, in his CJR piece, called Kushner’s approach “the most interesting — and important — experiment in journalism right now.” It would be easy and facile to make too much of Kushner’s woes. He may simply have gotten ahead of himself, and is now buying the time he needs to make sense of what he is building. Then again, if Ken Doctor is right, the end of this particular newspaper story may be in sight.