Is Aaron Kushner the Pied Piper of Print?

Can the novice publisher save The Orange County Register and transform journalism in the process?

Is Aaron Kushner the Pied Piper of Print?

Aaron Benjamin Kushner looked every bit the OC master of the universe ready to get his happy-hour on as he strolled into Mesa's lounge the evening of Nov. 27. Lanky; clean-shaven; wavy hair tamed to a perfect fade; dressed in an impeccably pressed, powder-blue, long-sleeved shirt and black slacks; and sporting a cocksure smile, he chatted with a young woman as they entered the Costa Mesa nightspot. She'd be the first to seek him out; within minutes of his settling into the lounge, clusters of people gathered around Kushner as if he were a preacher about to deliver the Good News to a sea of the damned—which is exactly what the 39-year-old was about to do.

The believers, about 80 in total, were members of Orange County's battered-down media landscape: bloggers, magazine publishers, PR flacks, college journalism professors, radio producers, newspaper reporters, all wanting validation for their craft. They were there for the Orange County Press Club's quarterly mixer, usually lightly attended affairs but tonight packed because the guest speaker was the Man Who'll Save Us All: Kushner. The new owner and publisher of The Orange County Register has gained national attention for a newspaper strategy out of Field of Dreams: If you build it up, readers will come. Discourage web hits for the sake of web hits, and reporters will come. Erect a paywall on your website and beef up the print edition, and people will subscribe. Then advertisers will pay. Then the revenue comes in, and journalism is saved.

It's a heretical strategy, especially in the midst of a 15-year period that has seen the dismantling of the American newspaper as we knew it, with shrinking circulation, perpetual staff reductions and declining readership not just aberrations, but the new normal, as aggregate websites and slideshows subsume the industry just as the Machines of The Matrix did to humanity. Yet since taking over the Register's parent company, Freedom Communications, in August, Kushner and his team have launched an expansion spree not only unprecedented in 21st-century print journalism, but also almost unfathomable. Orange County's paper of record has hired at least 45 reporters and editors, with intentions to hire at least 30 more. The Register brought back a daily business page after eliminating it just a couple of years ago and introduced new standalone sections on food, automobiles and weddings—with plans for a Sunday magazine and more. Even the actual stock of newsprint is better, making the daily gleam in a way it hasn't for decades.

Krushner thinks OC Is a “fabulous 
place to have a great newspaper”
Kevin Liu
Krushner thinks OC Is a “fabulous place to have a great newspaper”
Kushner mingles with the Orange County Press Club crowd
Kevin Liu
Kushner mingles with the Orange County Press Club crowd

More important, the morale at the Register is back at the level of its glory days during the mid-1990s, when it beat back the Los Angeles Times in a bare-knuckles circulation war for Orange County, and the future seemed limitless because of a newfangled thing called the World Wide Web. "I remember those days," says a veteran Register reporter who requested anonymity. "Those were beautiful days. We haven't had days like that since—until now. Frankly, I still have to pinch myself every morning to remind myself Kushner is for real. But I still have to tell myself this is a forever thing, that it won't be a passing fancy."

And that was the overriding thought on the minds of attendees at the press club mixer, after Kushner finished his 10-minute spiel and took an avalanche of questions. Can you just will a paper to succeed in a time when media analysts maintain print is dead? Can someone with no previous newspaper experience become a modern-day Otis Chandler, transforming a laughable property into a money-making powerhouse, remaking the region it serves for the better?

"I think he's deluded," says a former Register reporter. "Good intentions, but crazy." Then she laughs. "That doesn't mean I won't apply for my job back, though."

* * *

Ask Kushner why he purchased the Register—why invest in journalism, period—and he'll give long, precise answers delivered in a way that makes him sound as though he's the true believer he says he is.

"'Why newspapers?' is an easy one," he says over the phone (he declined an in-person interview at his offices, saying a Weekly reporter roaming the Register's halls wasn't "particularly appropriate"). "They matter—a lot. As to why now? Why not? Sooner is better than later, and I've been working on developing a model of all the pieces to be able to publish a newspaper, to have something like The Orange County Register grow again and thrive. And the timing was that the prior owners were ready to sell.

"I've always felt that newspapers were important and valuable," he continues. "I don't know that there was a specific time—that 'Okay great, let's go buy a newspaper'—that made me want to buy the paper. Certainly for a bit I've been working full-time on newspapers. The reason that newspapers do matter is that manifestation is what binds communities together."

But ask the father of three a question he's not expecting, or he doesn't like, and he'll laugh: an awkward, high-pitched laugh, the kind of haughty guffaw you'd expect from a Boston Brahmin. Or, better yet, he'll flat-out decline to answer. Ask where he's living in Orange County, and he'll say that's "private." Ask what hotel he stayed at his first time here or what restaurant he ate at, and he'll state, "I can't say."

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10 comments
bobbyhammer1
bobbyhammer1

Dear kusner. Im am Bobby Samuel

England . A justice fighter. Ive been

Hunting an fighting dirty lying skum

Bag cops for over 4 years now.

Costa mesa meth dealing lying dirty

Sadistic cops. The top cop fell.

Shackey the skum bag.lying top cop.

And half the cops in Costa Mesa

Took early.retirement or let go.

A little victory is better than no victory.

Ive been dealing with dirty cops for

44 years now. An i hate them with

A special deep hate. Now a dirty

Sheriffs deputy, P. Kinney of Dana Point

Is lying on me, false police report

An destruction of evidence while i

Tried.to.have the.true Queen of

Mean arrested for multiple crimes.

Hes her lover or paid off.

An asked.to.go undercover.an

Possible get killed by a wana be

Mafia princess, Nicole , Uncle Nicky,

Green. To buy meth.an i told him I

Could be killed an yet I agreed.

And before that in 5 minutes while

Attempting to bring a truthful lawful

Charge of multiple crimes against

A rich beautiful lady he threatened me

By saying, " You should cut your

Losses an move on while your ahead,"

Quote. He can go to hell. My losses

Are so.great.they.could. Fill.up

Angels stadium. And my.story.is true

An it is fantastic.an so great it is

Hard to believe. All true. Im the Bodyguard Preacher an my.name in

South county.is Ninjgel. Because

I preach.an treat people like an Angel

Of God would an I can crush ninjas

For breakfast. Who in their right

Mind takes on an entire police department of dirty cops.with no.backup, save God alone in Costa

Mesa ? I do ,and did and will.never

Stop fighting.evil an dirty cops an

Politicians, never, never, never

An i got lots of evidence an gave

It to the 4district court of appeals

An now have a lot of evidence on

The queen of mean, ms Nancy Leeman

Linko. And sheriffs deputy ,P. Kinney.

I could use.a little help . Thanks

The Hammer. Bobby England.

JustAnObserver
JustAnObserver

As a professional in digital media it is nice to see our local newspaper product succeed. When I moved to the O.C in 1999, the Register and OC Weekly were the only worthy sources of local news coverage. The LA Times OC edition was never a contender. Back then, it was fun reading the Register and Weekly for news and information from the perspectives of the far right and left editors. I concluded the truth was somewhere in the middle. I think the fragmentation of media will actually benefit print products. Local market advertisers are so perplexed on how to reach customers, digital mumbo jumbo and hocus pocus audience buying technology will always remain a mystery to small business owners.   Print is tangible and won’t vanish in a click.

jerrymencia
jerrymencia

I hope the register becomes worthy of a subcription. The nytimes sent a lettere in their paper this week notifing subscribers of a rate increase next year.  Good. Newspapers are terribly undervalued, I would pay $4 for a paper. (I am a broke college student and $4 is afforable. Don't act like you don't pay $5 for a pint)But the register isn't even worth reading for free, it can be a very silly paper. The last time i looked through it there was some national review columinist wasting print with overly done obama rants.

gentlreader
gentlreader

This article does a disservice by writing about the Register as if its "glory days" were ever glorious. Even at its best, it has never been more than a shallow-but-solid local daily that serious people didn't take seriously. The editors may be very nice people, but hiring new reporters won't make a difference unless Kushner replaces his newsroom management with editors who have the depth and national experience to do more than rehire old Register staffers (which is mostly what they're doing). It's too bad. As a local, I hate to see someone with Kushner's energy squander this opportunity. 

JBinOC
JBinOC topcommenter

Last Monday, Nancy Luna published a post announcing a "new and improved" Fast Food Maven blog.  I know, you already know where I'm going with this -- i.e., Fast Food Maven is still a soulless regurgitation of press releases and eminently unimaginative analysis -- but the real hoot is that the "new and improved" post is, itself, a contradictory mess of hyperbolic exuberance.  In other words...just like every other Fast Food Maven post. 

Richard
Richard

When it sounds too good to be true, it....etc. But if he's going to succeed as everyone hopes, Kushner first will have to stop acting like every other CEO. His non-answers and no comments make reporters suspicious and set the bar for all the other corporate and government officials who'd rather clam up ("No comment, like your publisher likes to say.") If he's for real, he'll allow a candid appraisal (such as the Weekly's) in his own paper. It seems only natural that the Register take a revealing, in-depth look at the newcomer who is promising so much to its citizens, and try to enterprisingly answer the question: is he for real?

Anon
Anon

Great article Gus. Curious to see how things pan out. Willing to share thoughts/predictions?

artpedroza
artpedroza

I read today's Register on a plane trip. It is definitely an improved product. That said we are moving towards a digital world. I don't see how this is going to work out in the long run.

GustavoArellano
GustavoArellano moderator editortopcommenter

@Richard That's what was interesting for me: Kushner was cagey, while Brusic was open and brutally frank.

GustavoArellano
GustavoArellano moderator editortopcommenter

@Anon Gracias for the kind words. I do hope it works out, if only because I believe in the value of strong news organizations. But Kushner's biggest problem is that it's the Register, the whackiest major daily in the whackiest county of them all!

 
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