While the ad-edit ratio can’t match historic levels, the size of the paper is reminiscent of the Register at its peak. For much of its 108-year history, the Register was a cash machine controlled by the Hoiles family, whose rabid libertarianism helped form the politics of fast-growing Orange County.
Decades of the kind of family feuding that has upended many a newspaper empire presaged a 2003 leveraged buyout of some family members’ stakes, which left Freedom Communications with too much debt when newspaper ads fell off the cliff. Its 2009 bankruptcy ended nearly 75 years of Hoiles family control, and private-equity investors took charge the next year as Freedom emerged from bankruptcy. Kushner’s 2100 Trust bought Freedom last summer for an undisclosed sum.
For years, the Register had followed the best practices of the digital-first evangelists, focusing on luring pageviews to its free website at the expense of the quaint print journalism that still brought in almost all the money. Reporters had blogging and Web-traffic quotas, and a clicks scoreboard filled TV screens in the newsroom, touting the hottest posts. That led to slideshows like “Sexy cafés are Little Saigon’s twist on Hooters,” and pieces like “Man’s penis saved after getting stuck in dumbbell ring”—three paragraphs aggregated from the Newport Beach Daily Pilot, which became the Register’s fifth-most-clicked article of 2009. “You had to make the numbers,” says Jonathan Lansner, a longtime Register business columnist and real-estate blogger, “so things got a little cheesy or stupid.”
But it was all for naught. Staggering under the heavy debt load, along with the evaporation of print ads and the failure of digital-ad revenue to materialize in meaningful amounts, executives slashed the newsroom to 180 journalists by last summer, down from 380 a decade earlier. “The depth of the report on any given day was suspect,” Lansner says. “How could it be any good when it was that small?”
Kushner shut down most of the Register’s blogs and re-focused reporters on “more quality, informative content.” He expanded the page count by 50 percent, significantly increased the number of color pages, launched several new standalone sections, and even—get this—upgraded the quality of the paper stock.
Most important, he’s gone on what must be one of the biggest hiring sprees in newspaper history, boosting the editorial staff by two thirds in less than a year. The Register has added investigative reporters, enlarged its graphics team, re-opened its DC bureau, and doubled staff at its 22 community weeklies. It has hired a James Beard Award-winning food critic and veterans of The New York Times, Time, and the Los Angeles Times, adding more than 140 journalists so far (plus about 100 in sales).
For a newsroom beaten down by years of diminishing resources, the changes are astonishing. “It is like living in a parallel universe,” Brusic says. “You see the rest of the world, and you’re doing something that’s completely different.”
Kushner’s outsider perspective has resulted in some missteps. This spring, the Register launched weekly sections about three local universities that agreed to buy $275,000 worth of ads for the year. The Los Angeles Times reported in March that the Register’s pitch to the University of California-Irvine promised that its section would “focus on achievement and success” and “reflect the excellence of UCI.” And indeed, the university sections so far have been awfully soft, though Register management says it maintains editorial control.
Kushner also caused a stir when he told his newsroom that it’s not its job to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.” He responded to his critics, noting that he has recently hired more accountability reporters than all the other US papers put together.
Seven years ago, newspapers got between $4 and $5 in ads for every dollar of circulation revenue, a ratio that has dropped to two-to-one today on a 55-percent decline in ad revenue. In the meantime, circulation revenue remained roughly unchanged. Some papers, most notably The New York Times and the Financial Times, now get more money from subscribers, both print and online, than they do from advertisers—an historic shift.
The Register doesn’t have the benefit of an international audience or a financial-industry focus. Brusic calls the Register the country’s largest community newspaper, and that’s where Kushner has deployed much of his effort and resources. He hired Curley, a veteran of the hyperlocal-journalism movement, to head the local news group, which publishes weekly papers in Orange County’s towns and cities. “I grew up in a small town where the local paper had half a page of who’s visiting who in the nursing home,” says Curley. The redone weeklies are “really old-school. It’s your grandmother’s newspaper, designed by the Design Institute.”