Is Aaron Kushner the Pied Piper of Print?

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

In June, Brusic got a note from corporate: The new owners wanted to meet with him. Lunch would be in Newport Beach at the ritzy Pacific Club, where the county's business elites cut their deals far from the public. Brusic wasn't told that the 2100 Trust was the buyer, but one of his reporters found out and gave Brusic a crash course on Kushner before the meeting. He was initially skeptical but was won over by the meeting, and he relayed that enthusiasm to his deputy editors.

After the deal was officially announced, Kushner asked Brusic if he could address the news team, all 350-plus of them. For company-wide meetings, the Register usually holds them at the in-house R.C. Hoiles Auditorium, but Kushner refused: He wanted to greet everyone in the newsroom. Chairs were rolled over from desks; people stood or sat on the floor. From the middle of the newsroom, Kushner immediately charmed everyone.

"What he says is well-practiced, well-rehearsed, well-believed, but it comes from his belief system—it's not marketing chatter," Brusic says. "He didn't come into this cold—he did his research. . . . I told them they were darn lucky. It would have been very difficult with a paper like the Globe or the Los Angeles Times. We're willing to take risks, willing to change."

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

Kushner announced Brusic would remain editor of the Register, then sent him off to hire. It's not a blank check, but the results show otherwise. The community newspapers—which Brusic admits were "crappy little tabloids that weren't very strong"—are transforming into broadsheets, with plans to turn some of them into dailies. Every large Orange County city will have its own veteran reporter, as well as a cub scribe to apprentice under them, a mentor system the Register used for decades to develop in-house talent. Names long familiar to readers and the newsroom—culture writer Anne Valdespino, food-section editor Cathy Thomas (who took a previous buyout but continued to work as a freelancer)—have returned, with more expected to come.

And Brusic is also trying to make waves by hiring big names. During the 1990s, then-Register publisher N. Christian Anderson III—who as editor during the 1980s revamped the paper into a respectable publication—infamously told reporters during a meeting that the Register was "not a destination newspaper." Now, Brusic is tasked with making it one. Now working full-time is Kedric Francis, longtime editor of Riviera magazine and a fixture in Orange County journalism; he had previously worked as an adviser for the Register's luxury magazine, Coast. Last month saw the debut of Bill Johnson's thrice-a-week column; he did the same for the Register back in the 1990s before moving on to the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News, where he won the 2007 award as best general interest columnist for the National Society of Newspaper Columnists (although he doesn't come without controversy; in 2005, Johnson had to admit he made up a story in which he claimed an anti-abortion activist threatened to kill him during his Register days). This month saw the debut of Brad A. Johnson, a James Beard award winner for his food writing. Every week, the Inside the OC Register blog (one blog management didn't ax) trumpets a new hire, almost always repeating Kushner's mantra of quality journalism.

"There is a sense of possibility now, and that's the most important thing," Brusic says. "[My reporters] never lost hope, but the idea of possibility constantly narrowed over time.

"But we'd be fools not to have fears" of whether Kushner's plan is sustainable, Brusic adds. "It's part of my anxiety. When I talk to people, I want them to have a sense of anxiety. Whatever happens, it will not be the people of the newsroom who will be part of [any] failure of that enterprise.

"I worry about everything," he concludes. "If we can't succeed, it can't succeed anywhere else."

* * *

Kushner's speech for the Orange County Press Club wasn't much—if you've heard him speak once, you've heard everything he's willing to say. He stayed mum on rumors he's interested in bidding for the Los Angeles Times and didn't reveal that three days later, Freedom Communications would announce the sale of the Colorado Springs Gazette, an important part of R.C. Hoiles' libertarian legacy. But the media crowd hung onto his every word, asked about 40 minutes' worth of questions and craned to hear his responses over Mesa's regular crowd and music, who didn't give a damn as they checked their smartphones.

But the journalists? They want to believe. They have to believe.

"Journalists are rooting for Kushner to succeed, for him to find the formula that will bring newspapers back to life," said Jeff Brody, a former Register reporter who's now a professor of communications at Cal State Fullerton, a couple of weeks after the meeting. "But that doesn't mean they aren't skeptical about how someone with no background in news can succeed where more experienced editors and publishers have failed. Of course, maybe that's what is needed. . . . I wish Kushner good luck because I want newspapers to survive."

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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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