In Washington State, an evening newspaper rises from the dustbin of history


If the morning daily newspaper is an endangered species, then the evening paper shuffled off to extinction many years ago. Now Cowles Co., which owns The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, is bringing it back.

Not really, and I’ll get to that in a moment. But first a little background.

Evening papers were dominant back when factory work was the way that tens of millions of Americans made their living. You’d work from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., come home and read the evening paper. Later, as we shifted to more of a white-collar, 9-to-5 culture, morning papers became the primary distribution vehicle for newspaper journalism. Evening papers faded away, and eventually few, if any, remained. The Boston Evening Globe, for instance, stopped publishing in 1979.

Today, of course, the news cycle is entirely different, with stories posted online around the clock, sometimes not to show up in print until days later — if ever.

Some of us, though, continue to like the day’s paper, whether online or in print. The daily paper represents a curated news report — the considered judgment of the editors as to what the day’s most important news is. Again, to use the Globe as an example, you can access a list of the stories in that day’s print edition (unfortunately, it seems that stuff always gets left out) or read the paper in the form of an e-edition — a PDF of that day’s paper that looks like the print edition. The Globe offers two versions, both so-so.

What The Spokesman-Review has done is revive its old evening paper, the Spokane Daily Chronicle, in the form of an e-edition that’s posted each afternoon. As reported by Kristen Hare of Poynter Online, the idea isn’t to compete with The Spokesman-Review, as it did back before the Chronicle folded in 1992 (even under common ownership); rather, it’s to boost the bottom line and give people who live in the Spokane area another reason to buy a digital subscription or keep the one they’ve already got.

“Our view is the e-edition is the gateway drug to our web presence for traditional readers,” publisher Stacey Cowles told Hare. “If they love it enough, it could help solve our huge manufacturing and distribution cost headache. But additional online pages have to be meaningful to make a difference. More stock listings don’t cut it.”

Added editor Rob Curley: “We were realists on this. It wasn’t about how are we going to make this a bigger pie, it was how are we going to hang on to the pie that we have when we know we’re going to continue to push subscription prices?”

If all this sounds retro, keep in mind that Curley is a pioneer in digital journalism, first at the Naples Daily News in Florida and, in the pre-Jeff Bezos age, at The Washington Post, where he presided over the launch of a digital-only local-news site in Loudoun County, Maryland. I met him in 2015 when I was researching my book “The Return of the Moguls” and Curley was editor of California’s Orange County Register under the ill-fated ownership of Aaron Kushner.

Print and print-like products continue to play an important part in keeping newspapers alive — as in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where The Berkshire Eagle is actually buying a used printing press in order to boost is color capacity. Someday, newspapers may drop their print editions entirely, or go weekend-only. Until that day comes, though, it makes sense to serve the print-oriented readers who pay the bills.

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Rob Curley out, jobs eliminated at Orange County Register

Photo (cc) by Dan Kennedy
Photo (cc) by Dan Kennedy

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.

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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.