Is Aaron Kushner the Pied Piper of Print?

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

The idea now seems laughably obvious: help people, well, change their address online for bills, subscriptions, residency and utilities using a few clicks (the company still survives as MyMove.com). The website drew press praise and profits, and Kushner eventually sold it to a company based in the Boston suburb of Newton, moving there to become the company's vice president. Looking for an investment, Kushner bought Marian Heath Greeting Cards in 2002 (his grandfather and great-grandfather were greeting-card makers) with funding from outside investors and became its CEO. He grew the company by acquiring smaller greeting-card makers, including Renaissance Greeting Cards in 2005.

On the day the card companies' merger was announced, Kushner called an all-employees meeting. "When they opened up the door," a former employee told Boston magazine in a 2011 Kushner profile, "we got into a line like cattle, and there were people at the door with clipboards asking us what our name was, and they looked at us and said, 'Okay, you go upstairs, you go to the cafeteria, you go upstairs, you go to the cafeteria.' Once we started seeing who was in the room, we were like, 'Oh, my God! Oh, my God! Those people downstairs are going to be let go today.' And sure enough, that's what happened. We never got to say goodbye to them."

Almost half of Renaissance's 77 employees were laid off immediately. Kushner defended the layoffs to Boston by comparing the greeting-card industry to the newspaper industry, saying both needed to go through "some incredibly painful transitions" to survive, then complaining, "How anyone could think that we didn't love the business and understand the business and that I didn't have a great vision for the business and leadership for the business? I don't see how anybody could make that argument." He stepped down as Marian Heath CEO in 2009, claiming to Boston, "I had a vision for the business, and they had a very different vision, and they controlled the working capital, so we decided to move on." Kushner won't confirm whether he still holds a majority share in the company.

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

A year later, Kushner announced he wanted to own newspapers—and not just any fishwrap, but the Boston Globe, an ossified institution in a city where pedigree still means everything. He assembled a group of investors and advisers—some local businessmen, others with impeccable journalistic credentials (newspaper publishers; a former Time Inc. CEO; even Ben Bradlee Jr., son of the legendary Washington Post editor)—and called his group the 2100 Trust, the number representing the year, the idea that his company was in it for the long run. In the spring of 2011, they put in a bid reportedly worth $200 million for the Globe and the other holdings of New England Media Group, including Boston.com, the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, and Telegram.com.

As he has done now, Kushner sounded the same notes about investing in journalism. "We are particularly pleased with the commitment of our growing investor group to the continued and expanded excellence of journalism in Boston and Worcester,'' he told the Globe. "When we have all of the pieces in place to not just purchase, but enrich the institutions, we look forward to making a formal offer.''

But the city's establishment and the nation's media watchers dismissed Kushner's interest as that of a dilettante, and The New York Times (owner of the Globe) never seriously entertained the offer precisely because of that inexperience. As late as this January, Kushner still claimed he had a chance at the Globe. By then, he had already moved on to smaller papers in Maine, preparing to be a small-scale Hearst, and that's where his grandiose plans hit another batch of non-believers: reporters.

* * *

Tom Bell stays silent for a beat, then laughs when asked how his first encounter with Kushner went. "Not very well," he says. "He demanded a lot of cuts to our contracts."

Bell is a general-assignment reporter for the Portland Press Herald, part of MaineToday Media, owner of three dailies and a weekly in the Pine Tree State. He's also the president of the Portland Newspaper Guild, which represents most of the workers at the Press Herald and the newsroom at the Morning Sentinel in Waterville; he has held that position for five years. In that role, Bell and other Guild leaders met with Kushner after 2100 Trust announced on Jan. 6, 2012, that it was taking a controlling interest in MaineToday Media, shortly after the Globe sale went nowhere.

"Our vision, our plans, start with great journalism," Kushner told a Globe reporter about the MaineToday Media purchase. "That is the heart of our business model, why our investors are involved."

Chris Harte, a 2100 Trust investor and former Press Herald publisher, told the Bangor Daily News, "We are acutely aware of the history and impact these newspapers have had on their communities, and our most important job will be meeting the high bar that has been set. Our goal is to invest and grow this business by delivering professional, trusted news to Maine people."

Bell, for his part, says he and other Guild leaders were "optimistic" before meeting Kushner, but that meeting quickly soured. "We believe he thought he had us over the barrel," he says. "He was polite, but he seemed to be someone who felt he had all the cards."

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