Conventional media wisdom posits several ways for a newspaper to commit suicide. It can drive up costs by multiplying staff and pagination. It can prioritise print over digital. It can erect a hard paywall to seal itself from the internet.
Or, if you are the Orange County Register, you can do all three. TheCalifornia daily did so almost exactly a year ago, prompting astonishment and morbid curiosity. How long would it last? In a crisis-stricken industry more accustomed to death by a thousand cuts, the Register, which dates back a century, at least promised a dramatic and original demise.
But this week, as the paper prepares to celebrate the experiment’s first anniversary, it appears to be thriving. “It’s working,” marvelled the editor, Ken Brusic. “We believe that this will work.”
The paper’s ambitious expansion and defiance of conventional wisdom has cheered and baffled the industry. Is it for real? Is there a magic formula to avert cutbacks and slumping circulation?
The Register‘s transformation is creating additional buzz because its owner, Freedom Communications, is about to launch a new paper, the Long Beach Register, and is circling the Los Angeles Times, which could soon be up for grabs. “We’re very serious about potentially acquiring the [LA Times] newspaper group,” said Aaron Kushner, Freedom Communications’ CEO.
His audacity – or quixoticism – has sparked acclaim and doubt. “Can Aaron Kushner save the Orange County Register – and the newspaper industry?” asked the Columbia Journalism Review.
“Is Aaron Kushner the Pied Piper of print?” wondered the Orange County Weekly.
Register staff – the newsroom has doubled to 360 in the past year – exude giddy, wary optimism that their paper has a bright future. Instead of rewriting stories they are filling multiple new sections with original reporting. “Feel the weight. This has 10 sections – and on a Tuesday. If it hit your cat, you’d kill it,” said Rob Curley, deputy editor of local news.
Orange County is an unlikely locus of media innovation. A sprawl of 34 incorporated cities south of LA, its 3 million inhabitants are considered among California’s whitest and most conservative, notwithstanding a growing hispanic and Asian population.
The Register, founded in 1905, made a name for championing libertarian values before stumbling through ill-fated digital-led changes from the 1990s. Pagination shrivelled and staff were laid off, said Brusic, who has been editor since 2002.
It was an industry-wide response, and readers noticed, Brusic said. “Imagine it’s your daily coffee. Each time you put down your money the cup gets smaller and the brew gets weaker. That’s essentially what’s happened to American newspapers. We took things away from people and at the same time gave content away free on the web. How crazy is that? The industry committed a kind of institutional suicide over time.”
Some, like the Rocky Mountain News, closed. Others, like the San Francisco Chronicle, limped on, feeble, malnourished versions of former selves.
Enter Kushner and his investment partner Eric Spitz. East coast moneymen, neither had experience in newspapers, nor links to Orange County, but they bought the Register last year convinced they could turn it around.
They lured journalists from all over the US to its five-storey Santa Ana office on the promise of an ambitious revamp. “I wasn’t interested. I thought this is the Titanic, rearranging deck chairs. Then I came here and met them and thought, holy crap, these guys are really thinking this through,” said Curley, the deputy editor for local news, who moved from Las Vegas.
The strategy was simple, if heretical: hire lots of extra hands, expand and improve coverage and charge readers, print or online, $1 a day. “That’s the model: have a good product and get paid fairly for it,” said Kushner, 40.
A lean former college gymnast, he does not come across as evangelical. He is serious and business-like, sips water from a flask at his desk, and refers to readers as subscribers or customers. “We invest an incredible amount of money and talent into creating the content and we believe it is worth paying a dollar a day for. Irrespective of how you happen to consume it, the value doesn’t diminish. So we don’t believe the price should diminish.”
The Register sells about 130,000 copies during the week and nearly 300,000 on a Sunday. Home deliveries are flat, compared to a year ago, but circulation overall is sharply up if you include an expanded stable of 28 weekly newspapers. (Previously 12-page tabloids, they are now 16- to 28-page broadsheets). Revenue is ahead of target, said Kushner, without elaborating. Annual figures are due to be published in September.
The Register has opened a four-strong Washington bureau, and added fresh wire services for foreign coverage, but the key is local news, especially topics such as faith, schools, sports, food and crime. It has about 30 photographers, including trainees. Staff call it America’s biggest community newspaper.
It runs 175 weekly reports, with colour photos, of high school sports – everything, girls and boys, football, baseball, basketball, hockey, tennis. A separate section covers high school arts. The paper also offered full subscribers a “golden envelope” allowing them to donate $100 of advertising to their favourite charity.
“We try very hard to make sure we’re delivering engaging content in those areas our subscribers are most passionate about. You’re not putting your iPad on the refrigerator, paper is what you cut out. That’s what goes into a scrapbook,” said Kushner.
Curley, who fizzes with energy, has drilled reporters into writing for readers, not other journalists, or for award submissions. “Newspapers can be world class at irrelevance. You need to write stories that are useful for the reader: my child is sick at 2am, what do I do, where do I go?” Such stories were “Google-proof” and retained subscribers, he said, because the content was original. “It’s like HBO and the Sopranos. You can’t get it anywhere else.”
The vast majority of Register readers consume it in print, bolstering advertising revenue, far more lucrative for print than online. The paper actively pursues the county’s 90,000 small businesses to fill its expanded pages with ads. “Invest that back into journalism and you get a virtuous cycle,” said Brusic.
A newcomer to the online Register has a brief, free period, then it disappears behind a paywall. The Guardian, which remains free, is at the other end of the spectrum. In between are the New York Times and some of Rupert Murdoch’s titles, which have phased pay walls.
“We need to do right by our existing subscribers,” said Kushner. “To tell them that they are paying, but other people don’t need to, is disrespectful. Either you believe your content is valuable and should be paid for, or you don’t.”
The model was not probably not replicable to national and international papers, he said, because the Register was Orange County’s only major media outlet.
Kushner dismissed any concern at ageing readership and predicted a demographic golden age. “Never before and never again will so many people be in the sweet spot of newspaper readership as the next 20 years. It’s called the baby boom.”
Analysts say the jury is out on the experiment. New hires and extra pagination have added an estimated $15m to annual costs. There is no guarantee higher subscription rates will cover that. All that depends on whether enough readers decide the improved paper is worth it, and keep subscribing. If they do, and advertisers follow, the gamble could work. If not, game over.
“Kushner’s bet is a bet on the core. Core product. Core readers,”concluded the media analyst Ken Doctor. Within two years we will know the outcome.
Brusic, for now, is savouring a restoration of hope in a journalism. “It really is extraordinary. We’ve been able to create a sense that there is a future, that there is possibility.” A scarred newspaper veteran, he added a warning. “I tell the newcomers that I hope they share my anxiety that this has to work. We’ve been down the other path of cuts, and it’s a dark path.”
- Against all odds, a new newspaper war erupts (usatoday.com)
- Register owners reflect on their first year (ocregister.com)
- The OC launches a newspaper war in the LBC (cjr.org)
- Register to launch Long Beach newspaper (ocregister.com)
- One newspaper cuts to survive; another invests to thrive (usatoday.com)