In 2012, Aaron Kushner, a media neophyte and self-described "mission-driven entrepreneur," purchased The Orange County Register and touted himself as a journalistic Jesus, intent not only on saving a crappy daily newspaper, but also on dumbfounding veteran American publishers by showing how to revive a struggling industry considered by some experts on the brink of extinction because of the Internet.
During an era of large-scale downsizing of newspapers, Kushner's stated counterintuitive model—give readers more reporting in larger papers to make them want to pay $260 per year for the product—continues to delight even cynical journalists, many of whom prematurely decided to herald the man who came to Santa Ana from Boston as an unqualified miracle worker.
Despite all the saccharine hype, Kushner's 15-month reign at Grand Avenue demonstrates no point greater than that the 40-year-old businessman with a background in hawking greeting cards is a superb salesman whose ignorance of journalism only seems to fuel his rah-rah enthusiasm.
Earlier this year, Voice of OC reporter Adam Elmahrek uncovered documents showing that Kushner had secretly suggested favorable news coverage to Anaheim officials in exchange for a profit-making business-promotion pact. Even a high-school reporter knows such an arrangement is a horrific, ethical no-no. Kushner, however, didn't profusely apologize or categorize his move as a momentary lapse in judgment. He complained the reporter had no business snooping into the paper's confidential deals.
In mid-August, more news punched holes in Kushner's halo. The paper wasn't meeting its financial goals. Perhaps worse, eight months earlier, his commitment to reporters—a centerpiece of the revival publicity—suffered a blow when he decided to stop matching employee 401(k) contributions, according to the Los Angeles Times. Individuals, including myself, who want the Register to succeed began questioning his belief that he was being innovative by pushing a tired, lame plan to win readers by copying the route used by glossy, content-empty, monthly magazines: publish countless staged, cocktail party-like pictures of local residents.
By Aug. 26, when Kushner visited New York City to appear on MSNBC's Morning Joe, he must've fretted about getting tough questions. As Weekly editor Gustavo Arellano previously revealed in an in-depth profile ("The Pied Piper of Print," Dec. 14, 2012), Kushner abhors inquiries that can't be answered by carefully calculated talking points. But it was during this six-and-a-half-minute, national television broadcast that Kushner's depictions of himself as the Reg's miracle worker rose to monumental heights of absurdity and provided inadvertent comedy.
While, for example, talking about the importance of keeping his readers informed about politics, Kushner showed he, the self-appointed king of OC news, is a clueless babbler. "We believe that, that, urrr, uh, that our congress people that are in D.C. are doing things that are really important," he said. "Darrell Issa is from Orange County."
Obviously, 60 weeks on the job hasn't been long enough for the Reg owner to learn which members of Congress actually live in Orange County. Issa isn't technically one of them. He lives 30 miles south of our border in Vista.
From that gaffe, Kushner turned to giving mind-numbing sound bites. Successfully selling newspapers is really simple, he told hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski. "We happen to believe that building community can, over the long run, be profitable," explained Kushner in remarks he likes to give to Orange County's corporate and governmental bosses who want the newspaper to serve as their loyal cheerleader.
Probably because "building community" sounded more like the goal of a real-estate developer or a lame government bureaucrat or a two-faced politician, Brzezinski nudged him to be more precise. Kushner abandoned the first response and took a second stab at an answer. This time, he said selling newspapers is as easy as selling a cup of coffee.
"If you went into Starbucks, and it was a smaller cup with a little less coffee in it, would you pay more or less?" Kushner explained, an explanation repeated verbatim by his business partner, Eric Spitz, and Register editor Ken Brusic in numerous other interviews. "You'd pay less. If instead . . . every week you come in, I give you a little bit more coffee in a little bigger cup, over time, you'll pay more for it. That's the simplicity of the [my] model."
Like the misguided U.S. military policy in Vietnam, the Reg boss is big on meaningless, inflated or outright fabricated body counts. Scarborough almost jumped out of his seat to kiss him when he proudly declared he'd "added over 300 people in the newsroom" in barely more than a year. Kushner is no idiot. He knows most people will believe his assertion means he added 300 reporters and editors, which is, to put it kindly, false.
Our requests for proof of the hiring numbers have been rejected, but veteran insiders say Kushner is exaggerating his figures by pretending all hires—including accountants, ad reps, receptionists, bill collectors, designers, clerks, etc.—are part of the newsroom. Spitz, second in command at the paper, supplied for an April story what are more likely accurate numbers, suggesting Kushner's 300 claim is off by around 180 to 200 newsroom bodies. Nevertheless, month after month, the Reg leader continues to erroneously sell the inflated number because it fits his paywall sales pitch.
Despite the numbers game, Kushner does deserve credit for sparking debate about improving journalism; relaunching the paper's D.C. bureau; strengthening the already-acclaimed investigative Watchdog team; adding a handful of new, competent reporters; making Long Beach a two-daily-paper city; giving attention to high schools; and improving morale. But how to test whether he's consistently giving readers more, uhh, coffee?
Let's compare Registers.
On the day before Kushner took control of the paper, it published 12 articles in the local news section. I randomly grabbed the same section of a paper published on the same day of the week after he set up the reader's paywall: July 8. How many local articles were stuffed into the much-ballyhooed new Reg?
Drum roll, please.
The answer is 10, for a net of minus two.
At least on this day, Kushner, who graduated from Stanford in 1994, violated his model. You want to see a truly meaty Reg? Go back to any time in the '90s, when publishing 20 or more articles in the Local section was the norm.
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There's also this fact: The paper's superstars today—journalists such as Teri Sforza, Larry Welborn, Jim Hinch, Jonathan Lansner, Martin Wisckol, Tony Saavedra, Frank Mickadeit, Jeff Collins, Sean Emery, Pat Brennan, Salvador Hernandez and Steve Fryer—were all at the paper eons before Kushner's arrival.
But at MSNBC, facts didn't get in the way with a coronation of the miracle maker. Except for Huffington Post White House correspondent Sam Stein, the hosts and panelists failed to challenge the Reg boss on a single dubious point. Scarborough even hailed his guest as "amazing."
"Some people would say I'm crazy, but no, the reality is that when I put more coffee in your coffee cup, you will return," a satisfied, smiling Kushner reiterated.
"This is amazing!" Scarborough concluded. "This is great news! I love it!"