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.”
The Register heavily covers high-school sports and publishes two pages of color photographs of the games in each weekly edition. It also started a weekly section called OC Varsity Arts that spotlights the non-jocks. Kushner is enamored with the idea of readers cutting out pictures from the paper and sticking them on the fridge. “You can’t put an iPad on the refrigerator,” he says. “You can’t put it in a scrapbook. You can’t tape it to your locker.”
That Kushner thinks he can get smartphone-obsessed teenagers to pick up an old-fashioned newspaper—even if their friends are in it—signals that parts of his plan are a stretch. Because Freedom is privately held, it’s unclear how much money Kushner and his partners are investing. The media analyst Ken Doctor estimated earlier this year that the annual tab for the newsroom hires and new print costs was roughly $10 million, and that revenue gained from increased subscription prices could offset that. The Register has since hired another 50 journalists, adding perhaps $4 million to $5 million to that stunning number.
The big question is where the growth needed to counterbalance the ad decline will come from. The Register raised its print subscription rate to a dollar a day and installed a hard paywall, which has been unsuccessful most places it’s been tried. The price for digital access? A dollar a day. “Our content’s incredibly valuable, and our focus is on subscribers,” Kushner says. “For the people who were in essence cannibalizing our business, they can make the decision: Either our content is valuable enough that they want to pay a dollar a day, or they don’t, and we haven’t done our job to convince them.”