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.

« Previous Page
 |
 
1
 
2
 
3
 
4
 
5
 
6
 
All
 
Next Page »
 
My Voice Nation Help
11 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.

bobbyhammer1
bobbyhammer1

Im fighting 3 professed witchesWho 2 have threatened to murderMe. If i bring lawful truthful chargesOn Ms.Shale Nancy Linko of chapoBeach by Dana point. My x insaneDrunk suicidal beautiful rich girlfriend.Ms. linko kicked me in my templeAnd had 5 vicious beatings.I tried to have her arrested on 2/4/13She is sleeping with officer P.KinneyAnd is protecting. She banged theTrash man,the plumber, an said shedBang the local animal control officerTo stop getting cruelty to animalTickets. Why not the Sherieffs tooMeanest women ive met or datedOr fell in love with. Tell damEditor of o.c. Weekly i got a trueWild story. Dirty lying cops,hit men,Mafia princess,witches,death threats,Boyfriend beatings,rich insane womanWith cop protection and staying veryClose an watching an protecting herAss,undercover bodyguard preacher,X convicts, new crime ring,midgets,Lesbians, sluts, bisexuels,real ninjas,And to top off, the true queen ofMean, the beautiful,sexy,bisexuel,rich,Sadistic,pathological,sociopathic,Ms.Nancy Shale leeman Linko,Meanest woman ive ever met.An wiped her ass an cleaned her vomitAn tried to help,serve,save and protectAn love her. All true. How the hellDi i get the editors phone no.emailMe at bobbyhammer1@live.com

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!

 
Loading...