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.”
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.
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.
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