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.
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.”