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.

Nice Shirt; Smug Mug
Kevin Liu
Nice Shirt; Smug Mug
Kushner at the Orange County Press Club, November 2012
Kevin Liu
Kushner at the Orange County Press Club, November 2012

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."

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"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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