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Is Aaron Kushner the Pied Piper of Print?

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

The Massachusetts man had never visited Orange County until this spring, when he first realized he wanted to purchase the Register, and he admits he has not yet explored most of the county, spending every breakfast and lunch in the Register's cafeteria and most of the rest of his weekdays in his office. He had never "particularly read the Register on a regular basis" until purchasing the paper. Yet despite these shortcomings, he says with confidence that Orange County "is a wonderful place. Vibrant, great mix of people, great sense of itself. Great business infrastructure. Wonderfully robust nonprofit community. It's a fabulous place to have a great newspaper."

And of a paper he has owned for about five months, he says "I don't think there's many people in the newspaper business who don't know the Register. It's not like it's a small secret. Even before we got here, it was one of the better metro newspapers in the country."

So he says. Over the past decade, The Orange County Register has been an Improv of bad sketches, a smorgasbord of every embarrassing journalism trend heralded as salvation. It tried to start a faux alt-weekly, Squeeze OC; that folded in two years. It debuted a daily tabloid, OC Post, consisting of shortened Register stories—done in two years. At one point, its website featured more than 40 blogs covering everything from the housing market in Huntington Beach to pets, from mothering to cosmetics to one devoted solely to the introduction of a 657 area code to northern Orange County; now, only 17 remain, and most are reportedly facing elimination (tellingly, most of the defunct blogs that still linger in the archives have a note saying the demise is due to a "shift [in the Register's] focus to more quality, informative content"). The Register created its own Wikipedia-style page about itself, hosted reader discussion boards, produced podcasts and video shorts, held reader focus groups and readers' polls, gave reporters web-traffic quotas, and even published "Vanity Fear," a 21-part, weekly serial in 2002 penned by staff writers that sought to emulate Armistad Maupin's legendary Tales of the City saga for the San Francisco Chronicle, but instead resulted in one giant, collective county yawn.

Kushner in action at the Orange County Press Club mixer
Kevin Liu
Kushner in action at the Orange County Press Club mixer
Brusic at his desk in the Reg’s Grand Avenue offices
John Gilhooley
Brusic at his desk in the Reg’s Grand Avenue offices

About the only constants in this time were the Register's boxy office building off the 5 freeway in Santa Ana; its legendarily retrograde readers (people so nasty that one year, Register reporters took it upon themselves to write an internal letter to editor Ken Brusic asking he censor them); and the ghost of R.C. Hoiles, the Register's longtime, legendarily cantankerous owner who transformed the paper from a backwater rag into a titan of American libertarianism, pushing Orange County onward to its unique rendezvous with conservatism—and forever branding the Register as a paper in which ideology took priority over good journalism. Instead, during this century, the Register became the news: layoff after reduction after firing after buyout after declining circulation report, all leading to the exit of Hoiles' descendants from the family business and ending in the bankruptcy of Freedom Communications in 2009. At one point, Marti Buscaglia was brought in to make history as the first Latina publisher of a major daily; instead, she declined the offer after it emerged that her résumé was faked.

And all the while, what made the Register essential reading in Orange County, for better or for worse, slowly disappeared, the victim of budget cuts and misplaced priorities. The token Vietnamese and Latino columnists. The in-house editorial cartoonist. The resident conservative columnist. The humor columnist. The film critic. A great food section. A full business page—this, in a county where captains of industry are considered as holy as Christ. Special investigative series. Community papers with their own teams of reporters the Register bought decades ago, once-proud dailies now reduced to throwaway weeklies staffed by kids two years removed from second-rate journalism schools back East. And more important, a retinue of talented reporters who either parachuted to other papers or took on PR jobs.

This is the paper Kushner wanted to buy?

He won't say how he found out about the Register, only allowing, "We have a very strong team, and some great financial backers, and when there are properties with what we want to do strategically, it's an easy process, from a financial perspective, [to pursue them]. We knew as soon as we started digging into the community and the business itself, that it was a great fit for what we wanted to do.

"I'm not a finance guy," he says. "I'm an operator. I live to build and grow businesses. The first thing that I did was to get a couple of weeks' worth of copies and look for the quality of the product. You have to understand—every newspaper exists only within the context of the community that it serves. You have to have a good feel for the community, for what's possible, even."

That's a general business strategy that has worked well for the multimillionaire, a native of Athens, Georgia, who graduated from Stanford University with a BA in economics ("with Honors," as his Register bio points out) and a master's in organizational analysis in 1994. While an undergrad, Kushner starred on the university's men's gymnastics team, a dynasty that won two titles in a row and finished runner-up in Kushner's senior year. He specialized in the rings and pommel horse, events for which careful choreography is essential not only to win, but also to merely survive. After graduating, Kushner moved to Chicago to work for the Boston Consulting Group, where he developed the idea that would earn him his first millions: ChangeMyAddress.com.

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