Betting man Kushner bought the Register cheap and is investing in it heavily, including one of the biggest hiring sprees in newspaper history. Will it pay off? (Jeb Harris / Orange County Register)
Rob Curley, one of the more prominent digital journalists of the last decade, had just about had it with newspapers. Tired of laying people off and trading print dollars for digital dimes, he quit his job as chief content officer of the Las Vegas Sun last summer to take an executive job at a real-estate company.
But then a relatively unknown investor named Aaron Kushner called. Kushner and his partner, Eric Spitz, had just bought the Orange County Register and had an improbable (some would say impossible) plan to resurrect the gutted paper: Invest heavily in journalism—and in print. “I had no interest in coming to the Register,” says Curley, “but I sat down and talked to him and said, ‘Shoot, I’m coming.’”
Kushner, a 40-year-old former greeting-card executive with zero experience in newspapers, is running the most interesting—and important—experiment in journalism right now. His thesis is simple, but highly contrarian: Newspapers are dying in large part from self-inflicted wounds, and there’s money to be made in print, particularly from subscribers.
The first part of the thesis rests on the fact that publishers, faced with fierce competition from Craigslist and Google, not to mention a severe recession, reacted by slashing their newsrooms and putting out papers so thin, you could read them in minutes. In attempting to maintain double-digit profit margins in the face of an ad market that has changed forever, newspapers undermined—perhaps fatally—their long-term health.
The second part of Kushner’s thesis suggests that publishers listened too long to the siren song of the digital gurus, who told newspapers that they shouldn’t—and couldn’t—charge online, and that print journalism was hopelessly outdated. Plunging circulation stunned publishers, even as they charged hundreds of dollars a year for much weaker papers while giving away their content free online for 15 years.
For Kushner, the answer is to bet on readers. Give them really good journalism—lots of it—and charge them for it. “If we are, every day, giving our subscribers more value, that creates more value for our advertisers, and for the community as a whole, then over the long term we can grow revenue,” he says.
It’s an audacious and expensive bet, and its outcome may reveal whether American newspapers can survive, much less flourish. Is Kushner—whose first entrepreneurial hit, by the way, was a dot-com—squandering his money on a hopelessly outdated business model? Or is he onto something?
“If it were just great journalism, I’d be as skeptical as anybody else,” says Ken Brusic, who’s been the Register’s editor since 2002. “These guys, being from outside the industry, have looked at the business model and really turned it upside down.”
A fresh pair of eyes hasn’t always been a boon to the newspaper industry. Real-estate billionaire Sam Zell was a catastrophe for Tribune Company, and megaflack Brian Tierney flopped in Philadelphia. Avista Capital Partners and its lenders lost half a billion dollars on the Minneapolis StarTribune, and Alden Global Capital couldn’t keep the Journal Register Company from sliding into bankruptcy (again).
All those bankruptcies, save the JRC’s, had something in common: Loads of debt used to fund purchase prices that reflected pre-2008 valuations, and severe cost cuts meant to prop up declining profit margins. Kushner had the benefit of buying Register parent Freedom Communications out of bankruptcy—after newspaper valuations had already fallen 90 percent in some cases. The Register’s newsroom and newshole had been chopped in half over the previous eight years, and its circulation was down 47 percent.
The changes were almost immediate. A recent run-of-the-mill Monday edition had 72 pages and eight standalone sections. The Los Angeles Times—once the Register’s hated rival in Orange County and a paper with nearly three times its print circulation—published 38 pages the same day. (The Washington Post printed 44, while The New York Times ran 48.) The Register has grown so fat that its Monday paper—typically the smallest edition of the week—approaches the size of Sunday papers in bigger markets. That week, the Sunday Seattle Times, a paper with comparable circulation, had just 94 pages. The Register’s Sunday paper had 242.
And it’s not stuffed with wire copy, either. The Monday edition had roughly 50 Register-only bylined stories and columns, 85 staff or contributed photographs (most in color), and three major infographics. Over one week in late March and early April, CJR counted 167 ad pages, roughly 30 percent of the total pages printed.