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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