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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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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