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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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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