Aaron Kushner's Wrecking Ball

The Boston millionaire claimed he'd save The Orange County Register and transform journalism. He didn't

Aaron Kushner's Wrecking Ball
Illustration: Kevin McVeigh | Design: Dustin Ames

They glumly marched into the third-floor newsroom of The Orange County Register's Santa Ana headquarters on June 9: editors, reporters, bureau chiefs, sales reps, the copy desk, photographers—almost the entire staff, gathering to hear their fate. Nearly two years to the day, Boston businessman Aaron Kushner had bought the paper and its parent company, Freedom Communications, and quickly made national news with a bold strategy: hire reporters instead of laying them off. Increase page counts instead of cutting back. Focus on print instead of digital. Start new dailies and acquire others instead of shedding them. More than 350 new hires, including about 170 on the editorial side, signed onto his vision, invigorating the Register in a way that veterans say recalled the glory days of the 1990s, when Pulitzers were won and the Sunday edition was thick enough to crush a cat.

"Everyone says our strategy has failed," Kushner told his disbelieving writers. "Perhaps they should be saying that our strategy has not succeeded?"

Kushner had long used the newsroom for town halls, instead of the in-house R.C. Hoiles Auditorium, as had previous publishers. It was a move to rally his troops, to show he was one of them. But June 9 would not be one of those days.

He arrived just before the meeting's 4 p.m. start, wearing his trademark uniform of a tucked-in button-down shirt, no tie, slacks and an air of assuredness. Just 10 days earlier, news had leaked in the Orange County Business Journal that Kushner was about to implement mandatory two-week furloughs by July to stave off massive financial losses, plus he would drastically scale back the Register's new sections, its community papers, and its Long Beach and Los Angeles editions. Shortly after the leak, Register editorial employees were summoned in groups to the office of editor Rob Curley. He told reporters they could apply for buyouts by the end of the week, and those approved had to leave by the following week; if not enough reporters took them, layoffs had to happen immediately.

Curley sat in the middle of the newsroom with his reporters as Kushner addressed the crowd. The CEO apologized for the measures he was about to execute. "Everyone says our strategy has failed," Kushner told his disbelieving writers. "Perhaps they should be saying that our strategy has not succeeded?"

And the town hall went downhill from there. There was open eye-rolling at Kushner's upbeat report on revenue and circulation, which offered no specifics. While insisting he and his partner, Freedom president Eric Spitz, were doing "everything we can" to keep the newspaper thriving, he quickly became defensive at anyone even slightly questioning his narrative. When asked whether circulation was growing for the Register, Kushner answered, "That's a very nuanced question" before finally admitting it was declining, that new subscribers had not materialized. When asked why he had expanded so aggressively if Register revenue hadn't reached sustainable levels, Kushner shot back, "You can't grow revenue by hoping for it, by wishing it. You have to actively invest in it, and that's what we plan to do." Asked if the furloughs and buyouts would stave off any future layoffs, Kushner replied, "There's things I can guarantee and things I cannot."

After most Register all-staff meetings, the newsroom erupts in chatter, as reporters catch up with colleagues they rarely get to see. This time, silence reigned—no applause for Kushner, no joviality, nothing. He left; people remained, stunned. "At this last town hall," said one reporter who attended, "it was a chance to say goodbye to some of the people who were leaving that we may not see again before their last day."

Soon after, dozens took buyouts, leaving a hollowed-out paper that was now roughly the same anemic size it was when Kushner bought it back in 2012. Even worse, Kushner had lost the trust of the newsroom for good—two years of audacious experimentation and optimism, gone in two weeks.

"The grand Orange County Register newspaper experiment has met the real world," wrote reporter Amy Wilson—lured back to the paper after years away—on her Facebook page, letting friends know she was moving back to Kentucky. "After almost two years, reality bites."

*     *     *

"When you listened to him, you wanted to be transported," said a former staffer, describing the first couple of months with Kushner at the helm of the Register. "Everything was big, and everything was going to be grand. He painted a very rosy picture, a picture that didn't seem to match what the newspaper industry was dealing with. We should've all known better."

In interview after interview with more than a dozen former and current Register employees (all of whom requested anonymity, fearing reprisal or the endangerment of their buyout, which included a nondisclosure clause), a picture emerges that's far different from the calm, cool, collected Kushner who became a media darling, appearing everywhere from NPR's All Things Considered to The New York Times proclaiming the wisdom of his unorthodox ways. The Kushner that emerged from interviews with his crew is someone who initially charmed and inspired everyone—until it became apparent his get-rich plans weren't succeeding and a different leader emerged.

"He doesn't want to hear 'No,'" said one former editor. "He wants his plan implemented, and he wants it done by his date. There's no talking to him about the realities of the situation. Basically, it's just about what he wants."

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92 comments
marleneeboudreaux
marleneeboudreaux topcommenter


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Coyote625
Coyote625

@JBinOC. The calm before the storm.

JBinOC
JBinOC topcommenter

"...wearing his trademark uniform of a tucked-in button-down shirt, no tie, slacks and an air of assuredness."



LOL

Coyote625
Coyote625

For those who missed Brad Johnson's article in yesterday's Travel section, two photo captions were woefully negligent in providing accurate info. The Ponte Vecchio does not span the Amo River. It's the Arno River. The photo of Piazza del Duomo should have been attributed to the photograph. Brad's articles deserve better editing. Journalism 101. Either very sloppy editing or someone does not give a damn about providing the community a quality product.

LoveHateRelationship
LoveHateRelationship

Is this the end?  Currently appearing on ocregister.com:


Error 503 Service Unavailable


Service Unavailable


Guru Meditation:


XID: 148448474


Varnish cache server


Dave Imboden
Dave Imboden

Is the ocregister.com on furlough? I get Error 503 Service Unavailable

Kimberly Duran
Kimberly Duran

Why does Oc weekly have more ads for marijuana then articles?

Heather McCoy
Heather McCoy

The crazy train doesn't stop at the register's letters to the editor section....

Heather McCoy
Heather McCoy

Also too why didn't Aaron hire any IT people so he could have a digital newsstand app so people can read the paper on their iPads and iPhones. To have your sole focus on newsprint is crazy...... Damn if I had been working for the register Aaron just fired me.... I offered contrarian advise that went against his goals.....

Heather McCoy
Heather McCoy

Aaron sounds like a pleasant man to work for ;)....

Steve SomeRandomguy Sobol
Steve SomeRandomguy Sobol

So the Register is going to descend into irrelevance, where my local newspaper (the Victorville Daily Press, also owned by Freedom Communications) already sits. Kinda sucks. :(

Jim Cox
Jim Cox

I have noticed that there are a large number of LA related stories lately in the register.

Sandra Sutphen
Sandra Sutphen

I got it, Gustavo Arellano. Truly. But he also hired a bunch of those people, right? Anyway, you and I are on the same side on this, trust me. Thanks, too, for defending me. I can't believe the shit you have to read!

OC Weekly
OC Weekly

Ask the 100+ people who lost their jobs whether people should be angry at Kushner.

OC Weekly
OC Weekly

Hey, Rich: Congrats! Due to your insults of a loyal reader, you're now only the third-ever person banned from our Facebook page. Adiós, pendejo!

Sandra Sutphen
Sandra Sutphen

Gustavo Arellano: I am so sorry that you have to put up with people like Rich Hail, Except that he's so totally over the top that I think he's just a parody? right?

Sandra Sutphen
Sandra Sutphen

I don't know who you are, Rich Hall, but I find your remarks totally offensive.

Sandra Sutphen
Sandra Sutphen

I'm sure it was the most popular article. I'm trying to remember but I think you didn't publicize any other one. Am I wrong? Gustavo Arellano, I don't understand your anger at him. There are questionable ad/editorial decisions (the weekly foci on local universities, paid for by the universities); I agree. But he was trying to save the printed page, and for that, I applaud him. Time and culture are not on his side. That's sad. I'll miss a printed newspaper.

lissacort
lissacort

Great, great article, Gustavo. Kushner's "plan" sounded sketchy, if not downright delusional, from the start. Bummer because I've read the Register (and OC Weekly) for decades.


Cancelled my digital subscription to OCR when the price skyrocketed last year. Now, I get the Register for free, which is actually a nuisance.  For two months they delivered every day even though I asked them to stop. Now it's only on Sundays when I get a free paper. It still doesn't enter the house, it goes straight out to the trash bin. I never wanted a physical paper, and they are wasting money. At least they're being consistent in their business model.

AnyMouse
AnyMouse

So you could only "take it" for 55 years before you unsubscribed. If everyone else could be as outraged as you, the Register would have it made.

cynthia.curran8
cynthia.curran8

Well, interesting study I read, it included Baja California. Baja California has birth rates more like Brazil than rural parts of Mexico. Santa Ana and Anaheim have birthrates like rural Mexico inland poorer states. Baja went down from 1.7 to 1.9, it would be interesting if Hispanics in the US follow the downward birth rate trends and most whites would stop complaining. Granted, Mexicans would still gain on whites for a decade but if births fall below whites to the Baja level then whites more  likely to recover, I think in OC whites gain about 2 percent back since 2010 since some whites in places like Ladera Ranch like to have 3 kids. Asians particular American born have lower birth rates and only gain by immigration or moving from other part of the US.

sherreeg
sherreeg

One of the perks of not subscribing to the OC Register? Fewer trips to the recycle center. Seriously, it's astonishing how much a week of newsprint adds up to be.

cynthia.curran8
cynthia.curran8

Also, Chuck Devore appears in today's issue. It would be better to have a few token liberals like theWhiting guy. I use to like the Mexican reporter that did articles also on homeless whites but she was dumped. One of the hard core libertarians that wrote for the paper now writes for the San Diego paper. It went from being the odd libertarians to being just another right wing Republican rag, some of the libertarians didn't always like the Republican Party but now its very pro-Republican Party.

cynthia.curran8
cynthia.curran8

Personality, I think he was overambitious and take understand there is not the market for more conservative news as there was 10 years ago in La and the Inland Empire even Orange County fell behind Maricopia County for most conservative large County in the US. I think its the high cost of housing which has shifted the more conservative types to other states, most recently to Texas since there is a hard right group among white Republicans there. The problem in the long term Texas is as Hispanic as California but the Register has pro-Texas biases all the time and gets the right wing here to moved to Texas. Granted, the Fracking and some business are lured to Texas like Toyota with big tax breaks. Constantly, saying Texas is better than California without any better ideas than just taxes and regulation isn't going to increase your fan based. In fact its always big states not small state Utah, or Nebraska or Montona which are doing just as good as Texas and for conservatives have less Hispanics and Blacks. Liberals are the same way usually they talk about New York or Mass. but rarely Vermont, or New Hempshire more purplish or a few other small states that don't have the problems of California or New York. Vermont is the successful mainly small white state that is liberal.

tpild
tpild

Looks like the hard paywall is back.  Today virtually no free articles.


Wild course changes at the Register.  Not a good sign.

abstract668
abstract668

We have to stop believing people just because they talk in B-School Blah-blah-bah language. When someone talks about "monetizing remnant newspaper inventory" I think he is promising to spin straw into gold.

Rabbi_Pedro
Rabbi_Pedro

Kushner is just another rich, arrogant Jew 

thatwasmyeviltwin
thatwasmyeviltwin

Yeah, he lost me at the pay wall. And I was a whore for sticking around until then.

sweetliberty17761776
sweetliberty17761776 topcommenter

political correctness is not only destroying America but newspapers as well


and within that there is a "strange" connection 


and has to do with freedom of the people to both receive information and be a free FROM GOVERNMENT, nation


and dont forget



one of the objectives of both the government and the msm is to defeat the 


message boards and others who expose them


just telling you the future 




thejulianelson
thejulianelson

This is more evidence that SoCal can't trust carpetbagging Boston businessmen. First McCourt devastates the Dodgers, now Kushner crapifies the Register. Full disclosure: I worked for the OCR for 23 years and was laid off with a generous buyout in 2007, before Kushner bought it. A lot of longtime friends have lost their jobs or took buyouts under Kushner. The OCR was stuffed with talented writers, designers, and photographers and now that the staff has been cut, I don't know how it can bounce back.

robert921
robert921

When I was a kid, my dad took the Herald Examiner to get the stock quotes when he got home; after that paper was closed by Hearst because of their fatal labor dispute (a friend and his dad both worked there and lost their jobs), he never read a paper again.  I was an LA Times subscriber whenever they had a deal, but found The Register a much better paper, until papers in general began their death spiral of greed and political correctness.  I actually drove to a paper stand at Torrance Bl/Anza to get The Register on Sundays, when I was not at my office in Santa Ana.


The internet was born, and instead of yesterday's news today, you could look up "the news" and later everything else while not subscribing and paying.  But media is all about advertising, and for some reason the papers forgot that, including eventually The Register.  They all started trying to charge and losing subscribers, and as advertisers saw everyone leaving, they moved their ad dollars to where the eyeballs are - the internet.  Smaller, faster, lighter, denser, cheaper, as they say.  The papers have allowed themselves to be replaced, when they were always about facts.


There are some comments about Frank Mickadeit, the Register gadfly.  Many reporters saw the writing on the wall and went back to school, especially law school, and those who felt they could just switch to "the other media" found that more competitive and lower paying than the old papers.  Frank went to law school, and leveraged his connections to begin his practice.  Nothing wrong with that.


I have mixed feelings about Frank.  He saved my car show by keeping his promise to bring someone along with a car, and I found Louie the Sicilian barber after my barber died of cancer because of an article Frank wrote.  But I got to listen to Louie telling that Frank brought a woman reporter with him, and never even got a haircut when they visited his shop, then Frank (who knew who I was) never called me back for a free haircut and lunch, which would have made an interesting story and thrilled Louie, quite the interesting character at 76.  I finally had to tell Louie, who always asked about Frank, that he simply didn't care to return my calls.


Frank also had some weird attachment to the Real Housewives, and an attitude that was not interesting or funny.  I wouldn't call him to be my lawyer.


The Register got suckered by a sociopath, pure and simple.  Reminds me of Frank McCourt.

tonib05
tonib05

I recently moved to San Clemente and was going to subscribe to the OC but after buying one decided not to bother.  There was nothing in the paper worth reading and the Sunday edition which my daughter gets isn't worth the money she is paying for it.  At least the Las Vegas paper had some thing in it to read.  OC Register really needs to improve some to get new subscribers.  It is really a shame that the younger people don't read the paper edition depending on the internet or the TV to get their news.  It is the same for books.  They will also be a thing of the past.  To me there is nothing like having the paper or book in my hands to read.

Dmike
Dmike

Good Riddance.  OC Register sucks anyway

Golfguy
Golfguy

"Accidentally sent a copy of the story to Kushner?" I've been in journalism for 30 years and I've never heard of anybody "accidentally" sending a copy of a story to the subject of the article. That's a damn lie! I'm sure you sent it to him on purpose to get more reaction. Good for you!! But there's no way that was an accident!!

fishwithoutbicycle
fishwithoutbicycle topcommenter

Awesome cover. But now I have that damn song in my head...LOL

wayneinhb
wayneinhb

Good riddance! I was a subscriber to that paper for 55 years, until I couldn't take their Libertarian crap anymore. I expect unbiased news---not just some idiot's biased agenda. I used to start my day in a very bad mood after reading the Register with my breakfast. I can't believe how much better I felt after cancelling my subscription.

alpacarules
alpacarules

My friends say that since over 70 of their top reporters jumped ship, only 19-year-old interns are editing articles.

FormerlyFromFreedom
FormerlyFromFreedom

Steve - The Victorville Daily Press was sold from Freedom many months ago. Local Media Group now owns them. 

Formerocr
Formerocr

@sandra sutphen....you are incorrect in stating that kushner was "trying to save the printed page". He is on a ego trip that has nothing to do with Newspapers. He can say what he wants , but his actions only show how much he actually has destroyed the concept of print. No disrespect to you, but please do not "applaud" this man and his actions.

AnyMouse
AnyMouse

@tpild I thought you hated the rag? Why even care if there's a paywall if you don't read it?

AnyMouse
AnyMouse

@wayneinhb So you could only "take it" for 55 years before you unsubscribed. If everyone else could be as outraged as you, the Register would have it made.

sherreeg
sherreeg

@wayneinhb  I went down to a Sunday-only subscription after the Register gave scant coverage of Eric Cantor's historic Senate primary loss while providing front-page coverage to President Obama's UCI address, three days before his schedule event--a story that belonged on the "Local" pages if it belonged anywhere. When the Register ceases to publish news, it ceases to be a newspaper.

tpild
tpild

@AnyMouse @tpild Its like a wreck on the freeway.  It isn't good but you look anyway.


I've heard various recordings of Kushner speaking.  As mentioned in the article he doesn't come off as a Stanford grad with something interesting to say.  Instead lots of puffery, rich with buzzwords. The word "vibrant" comes to mind.  He uses it frequently.  Where has anyone heard that word in a context other than advertising copy or puff piece?


"Community Building" is another example.  Vague with a dash of arrogance.  These communities were built decades or even a century ago.  Perhaps Kushner should start by living in OC before using that phrase excessively.


He comes off to me like flim flam artist.  But he can't be winning here either, he must be losing some of his personal assets.  Question I have is what is his personal background?  I know he led a greeting card company in New England.  Is he sef-made or largely dealing with inherited wealth?


Anyway good series of articles in the Weekly.  FWIW I also enjoyed the art pieces of this article and the "Pied Piper of Print."

 
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