Is Aaron Kushner the Pied Piper of Print?

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

Kushner, Bell says, presented them with a list of demands—50 in total. He wanted to increase the workweek from 37.5 hours to 40 hours, with no additional pay, and for employees to increase their pay-in to health, life and dental insurance. He planned to cut overtime, reduce salaries for salespeople, and cripple the union by being able to outsource work and hire non-guild members to new positions. In addition, Kushner planned to make the Press Herald's editorial writer and columnist positions non-union and no longer keep five full-time photographers.

The guild officers were stunned. "He seemed to want to . . . appeal to our sense of journalism as an important profession," Bell says. "We came to not trust him or his business plan. He was never able to convince us that he had a business plan we could believe in.

"He never really went into much detail of his plan, either," Bell adds. All Kushner would reveal was that he wanted "high-level quality, yet somehow he would find savings to make it happen. And we didn't think he had the abilities to carry it out."

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

Realizing his hamfisted approach wasn't going over well, Kushner quickly backed off most of the demands. Nevertheless, the guild publicly rejected Kushner, and the 2100 Trust backed out of its bid. Bell and others instead convinced a Maine billionaire to give MaineToday Media a multimillion-dollar loan in exchange for equity in the company and a board seat; since then, Bell says, his reporters' contracts remain intact, the size of the Press Herald's newsroom has doubled, and they're investing in the future with a business plan with which the guild is comfortable.

Of his standoff with the Portland Newspaper Guild, all Kushner would say is "We did, indeed, have a respectful difference of opinions as to the best path forward for the institutions that serve those communities. They wanted to protect the status quo. As we have shown in Orange County, we are committed to a different path of robust hiring and growth, of what we provide to subscribers and advertisers."

But Bell adds, "It's a little odd for us, reading these stories [about Kushner's vision] and to hear about him hiring all these reporters. What we saw . . . I'm not sure how it's going to play in Orange County in the future. We were unconvinced, but maybe we were wrong, and we hope we're wrong.

"My advice" to Register reporters, he concludes, "is to to be careful of how they manage their own personal finances. Don't get in a situation where you have a big mortgage and big car payments because this might not work out."

* * *

The Register's news team is based out of the third floor of the paper's Santa Ana building. The elevators open up to a mini-lobby that features the front page from a year ago, pictures from important stories, and the paper's crown jewel: the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting, awarded for its brilliant series of stories about the UC Irvine fertility-clinic scandal.

That was the past; the future is represented in a nearby hallway featuring 36 pictures and brief bios of the Register's new hires. A display case contains 12 pictures; the other 24 are taped to the wall around it.

The Register's Ken Brusic looks at the pictures, then walks across the office, mostly empty now because it's early in the morning. He points out desks that are currently vacant but will soon host new reporters, plus a wing that will be modified as the Register hires up. "I never thought we'd run out of room," the soft-spoken Brusic says. "Especially as we were running people out."

He has been the editor since 2002, a well-liked man in the newsroom who started with the paper in 1989 as a projects editor. He possesses a humble, fatherly personality of a humanities professor—and maybe that explains why Brusic feels "anxious" under Kushner.

"I don't want to screw this up," he says from his office overlooking the freeway.It's been decorated with photos and clips of past Register triumphs; outside his door is a flat-screen television showing the most-viewed stories on the Register's website for the day. "It's not only important for the Register, but for everyone in the industry for this journey to succeed. The other path is too dreadful to imagine—a suicidal path of more layoffs. But Aaron and Eric [Spitz, CEO of Freedom Communications] are putting a stake down and saying, 'No, nope. That's not the path.'"

It's been under Brusic that the paper has seen its darkest days, days that took a toll on him and his reporters. And the future looked even bleaker when the hedge-fund owners who rescued Freedom Communications from bankruptcy announced in 2010 that they were going to sell off the company. No serious bidders emerged until this year, and none of them looked appealing to Brusic. One was MediaNews Group, run by Dean Singleton, a notorious skinflint who decimated the Long Beach Press-Telegram and has long had his eyes on the Register to complement his collection of Southern California dailies. Another interested party was someone whom Brusic cryptically referred to as "buyers from the South": Doug Manchester, owner of what was once called the San Diego Union Tribune but has turned into a national laughingstock because the paper now trumpets his beliefs, friends and developments. "We were kept in the dark by corporate," Brusic says, referring to the sale of his paper. "All we heard were rumors."

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