The Register in talks with MediaNews about sharing content

Singletoned Out?
The Register is abuzz with talk of a proposed content-sharing deal with the cost-cutting MediaNews mogul

When somebody writes the history of the decline and death of The Orange County Register, the final chapter just might begin with a series of secret meetings the paper held with Dean Singleton's MediaNews Inc. in recent weeks.

The meetings—between Register editor Ken Brusic and the Denver-based conglomerate that unsuccessfully tried to take over the paper in 2003—were revealed to Register staffers by Brusic and Register publisher Terry Horne nearly two weeks ago, according to sources at the paper who spoke with the Weekly on condition of anonymity.

Brusic was out of town on Tuesday because of a death in the family; neither Horne nor Singleton returned phone calls seeking comment for this story. The announcement came during a Feb. 1 "town hall" meeting by Horne at the Register's Grand Avenue headquarters in Santa Ana, which was attended by roughly 100 of the paper's newsroom "associates," as  employees are called by the paper's libertarian owner, Freedom Communications.

Horne held the meeting to update staffers about the paper's financial woes: Profits went down $24 million last year, and the company's stock was recently downgraded to just above junk-bond status. According to one source who attended the meeting, Horne confirmed rumors already circulating that the paper was meeting with MediaNews to find ways for both companies to share editorial content in "overlapping" areas of coverage such as sports and entertainment. Horne didn't mention whether any money would change hands in the deal, but he said it would allow both companies to save money by laying off reporters who work beats that both the Reg and Singleton-owned papers, such as the LA Daily News and the Long Beach Press-Telegram, already cover, the source says.

The source adds that Horne implied cultural and sports coverage of such LA beats as Hollywood, the LA Philharmonic Center and Dodger Stadium were likely targets for the budgetary axe. "The Register might not have a Hollywood guy; we might use Daily News for that," the source says. "You can think of all these scenarios where [MediaNews] would use us for the Angels, and we'd use them for the Lakers."

According to the source, Brusic mentioned one Register columnist by name as someone who would likely lose his beat thanks to such a deal: Barry Koltnow, who writes the Hollywood column "Barrywood." "I know it's not what you want to hear, but that's what we're looking into," Brusic reportedly said, speaking directly to Koltnow, who was in the room. Koltnow did not respond to an interview request.

Two sources at the paper said Horne's announcement only added to newsroom anxiety at the Register, which has gone through several rounds of buyouts and layoffs in the past year in addition to seeing the shuttering of its two spin-offs, Squeeze OC, a glossy faux-alternative weekly, and OC Post, a USA Today-style abbreviated version of the Register, with articles that averaged roughly 200 words.

In a further effort to save cash, the paper killed its stand-alone business section last month, removing several pages of content and folding it into the main news section.

The two sources say Horne plans to increase revenue by offering zoned advertising, as well as distributing the paper for free in areas where the Los Angeles Times has better circulation than the Register.

The paper is also under an unofficial hiring freeze. And, in a further indignity, a few weeks ago, one of the sources says, the paper began charging employees for subscriptions to the paper.

"All those little things are not helping morale," the source says.

The fact that a content-sharing deal between the Register and Singleton is even being discussed is noteworthy if for no other reason than Singleton—who also owns the Denver Post, the San Jose Mercury News and the Pasadena Star, among others—has openly mocked the Hoiles family, who own Freedom, as "naive beach boys" after the family borrowed $900 million from outside investors Blackstone Group and Providence Equity Partners—in large part to rebuff Singleton's 2003 effort to buy the paper. If Freedom can't return that cash by 2010, it may have to sell the paper anyway.

But the thought of any deal with Singleton is being greeted with special alarm by Register staffers because Singleton has a reputation for ruthless takeovers of competing newspapers, transactions that typically involve immediate layoffs of numerous reporters and salary-slashing for anyone left behind. That's what happened in 1997, when Singleton bought the Press-Telegram. Because Singleton claimed he was only purchasing the paper's "assets," the deal destroyed the paper's union contract. Employees were forced to interview for their old jobs and accept a roughly 50 percent reduction in their salaries.

According to one source, many at the Register feel a content-sharing deal with MediaNews would represent another salvo in a renewed Singleton effort to take over the paper. "We're very suspicious of [Singleton]," the source says. "We see what he has done with other papers he has bought. They are operating with a skeleton staff and are being underpaid, and we don't want to be a part of that world."


NSCHOU@OCWEEKLY.COM

 
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