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."

"I hope it works," says Jennifer Muir, a former Register county-government reporter who's now the assistant general manager at the Orange County Employees Association (OCEA). Kushner invited her and OCEA head Nick Berardino to his offices recently, part of a strategy to host county movers and shakers and ask what they need of the Register. "I think that Aaron seems to have some very good ideas, and with his focus on good journalism, I can only be hopeful. And maybe it's naive of me—I don't know—but I believe that good journalism is important, and if a paper invests in good journalism, it has a shot of surviving. And that's what it appears it's doing."

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