Is Aaron Kushner the Pied Piper of Print?
Aaron Benjamin Kushner looked every bit the OC master of the universe ready to get his happy-hour on as he strolled into Mesa's lounge the evening of Nov. 27. Lanky; clean-shaven; wavy hair tamed to a perfect fade; dressed in an impeccably pressed, powder-blue, long-sleeved shirt and black slacks; and sporting a cocksure smile, he chatted with a young woman as they entered the Costa Mesa nightspot. She'd be the first to seek him out; within minutes of his settling into the lounge, clusters of people gathered around Kushner as if he were a preacher about to deliver the Good News to a sea of the damned—which is exactly what the 39-year-old was about to do.
The believers, about 80 in total, were members of Orange County's battered-down media landscape: bloggers, magazine publishers, PR flacks, college journalism professors, radio producers, newspaper reporters, all wanting validation for their craft. They were there for the Orange County Press Club's quarterly mixer, usually lightly attended affairs but tonight packed because the guest speaker was the Man Who'll Save Us All: Kushner. The new owner and publisher of The Orange County Register has gained national attention for a newspaper strategy out of Field of Dreams: If you build it up, readers will come. Discourage web hits for the sake of web hits, and reporters will come. Erect a paywall on your website and beef up the print edition, and people will subscribe. Then advertisers will pay. Then the revenue comes in, and journalism is saved.
It's a heretical strategy, especially in the midst of a 15-year period that has seen the dismantling of the American newspaper as we knew it, with shrinking circulation, perpetual staff reductions and declining readership not just aberrations, but the new normal, as aggregate websites and slideshows subsume the industry just as the Machines of The Matrix did to humanity. Yet since taking over the Register's parent company, Freedom Communications, in August, Kushner and his team have launched an expansion spree not only unprecedented in 21st-century print journalism, but also almost unfathomable. Orange County's paper of record has hired at least 45 reporters and editors, with intentions to hire at least 30 more. The Register brought back a daily business page after eliminating it just a couple of years ago and introduced new standalone sections on food, automobiles and weddings—with plans for a Sunday magazine and more. Even the actual stock of newsprint is better, making the daily gleam in a way it hasn't for decades.
More important, the morale at the Register is back at the level of its glory days during the mid-1990s, when it beat back the Los Angeles Times in a bare-knuckles circulation war for Orange County, and the future seemed limitless because of a newfangled thing called the World Wide Web. "I remember those days," says a veteran Register reporter who requested anonymity. "Those were beautiful days. We haven't had days like that since—until now. Frankly, I still have to pinch myself every morning to remind myself Kushner is for real. But I still have to tell myself this is a forever thing, that it won't be a passing fancy."
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And that was the overriding thought on the minds of attendees at the press club mixer, after Kushner finished his 10-minute spiel and took an avalanche of questions. Can you just will a paper to succeed in a time when media analysts maintain print is dead? Can someone with no previous newspaper experience become a modern-day Otis Chandler, transforming a laughable property into a money-making powerhouse, remaking the region it serves for the better?
"I think he's deluded," says a former Register reporter. "Good intentions, but crazy." Then she laughs. "That doesn't mean I won't apply for my job back, though."
* * *
Ask Kushner why he purchased the Register—why invest in journalism, period—and he'll give long, precise answers delivered in a way that makes him sound as though he's the true believer he says he is.
"'Why newspapers?' is an easy one," he says over the phone (he declined an in-person interview at his offices, saying a Weekly reporter roaming the Register's halls wasn't "particularly appropriate"). "They matter—a lot. As to why now? Why not? Sooner is better than later, and I've been working on developing a model of all the pieces to be able to publish a newspaper, to have something like The Orange County Register grow again and thrive. And the timing was that the prior owners were ready to sell.
"I've always felt that newspapers were important and valuable," he continues. "I don't know that there was a specific time—that 'Okay great, let's go buy a newspaper'—that made me want to buy the paper. Certainly for a bit I've been working full-time on newspapers. The reason that newspapers do matter is that manifestation is what binds communities together."
But ask the father of three a question he's not expecting, or he doesn't like, and he'll laugh: an awkward, high-pitched laugh, the kind of haughty guffaw you'd expect from a Boston Brahmin. Or, better yet, he'll flat-out decline to answer. Ask where he's living in Orange County, and he'll say that's "private." Ask what hotel he stayed at his first time here or what restaurant he ate at, and he'll state, "I can't say."
The Massachusetts man had never visited Orange County until this spring, when he first realized he wanted to purchase the Register, and he admits he has not yet explored most of the county, spending every breakfast and lunch in the Register's cafeteria and most of the rest of his weekdays in his office. He had never "particularly read the Register on a regular basis" until purchasing the paper. Yet despite these shortcomings, he says with confidence that Orange County "is a wonderful place. Vibrant, great mix of people, great sense of itself. Great business infrastructure. Wonderfully robust nonprofit community. It's a fabulous place to have a great newspaper."
And of a paper he has owned for about five months, he says "I don't think there's many people in the newspaper business who don't know the Register. It's not like it's a small secret. Even before we got here, it was one of the better metro newspapers in the country."
So he says. Over the past decade, The Orange County Register has been an Improv of bad sketches, a smorgasbord of every embarrassing journalism trend heralded as salvation. It tried to start a faux alt-weekly, Squeeze OC; that folded in two years. It debuted a daily tabloid, OC Post, consisting of shortened Register stories—done in two years. At one point, its website featured more than 40 blogs covering everything from the housing market in Huntington Beach to pets, from mothering to cosmetics to one devoted solely to the introduction of a 657 area code to northern Orange County; now, only 17 remain, and most are reportedly facing elimination (tellingly, most of the defunct blogs that still linger in the archives have a note saying the demise is due to a "shift [in the Register's] focus to more quality, informative content"). The Register created its own Wikipedia-style page about itself, hosted reader discussion boards, produced podcasts and video shorts, held reader focus groups and readers' polls, gave reporters web-traffic quotas, and even published "Vanity Fear," a 21-part, weekly serial in 2002 penned by staff writers that sought to emulate Armistad Maupin's legendary Tales of the City saga for the San Francisco Chronicle, but instead resulted in one giant, collective county yawn.
About the only constants in this time were the Register's boxy office building off the 5 freeway in Santa Ana; its legendarily retrograde readers (people so nasty that one year, Register reporters took it upon themselves to write an internal letter to editor Ken Brusic asking he censor them); and the ghost of R.C. Hoiles, the Register's longtime, legendarily cantankerous owner who transformed the paper from a backwater rag into a titan of American libertarianism, pushing Orange County onward to its unique rendezvous with conservatism—and forever branding the Register as a paper in which ideology took priority over good journalism. Instead, during this century, the Register became the news: layoff after reduction after firing after buyout after declining circulation report, all leading to the exit of Hoiles' descendants from the family business and ending in the bankruptcy of Freedom Communications in 2009. At one point, Marti Buscaglia was brought in to make history as the first Latina publisher of a major daily; instead, she declined the offer after it emerged that her résumé was faked.
And all the while, what made the Register essential reading in Orange County, for better or for worse, slowly disappeared, the victim of budget cuts and misplaced priorities. The token Vietnamese and Latino columnists. The in-house editorial cartoonist. The resident conservative columnist. The humor columnist. The film critic. A great food section. A full business page—this, in a county where captains of industry are considered as holy as Christ. Special investigative series. Community papers with their own teams of reporters the Register bought decades ago, once-proud dailies now reduced to throwaway weeklies staffed by kids two years removed from second-rate journalism schools back East. And more important, a retinue of talented reporters who either parachuted to other papers or took on PR jobs.
This is the paper Kushner wanted to buy?
He won't say how he found out about the Register, only allowing, "We have a very strong team, and some great financial backers, and when there are properties with what we want to do strategically, it's an easy process, from a financial perspective, [to pursue them]. We knew as soon as we started digging into the community and the business itself, that it was a great fit for what we wanted to do.
"I'm not a finance guy," he says. "I'm an operator. I live to build and grow businesses. The first thing that I did was to get a couple of weeks' worth of copies and look for the quality of the product. You have to understand—every newspaper exists only within the context of the community that it serves. You have to have a good feel for the community, for what's possible, even."
That's a general business strategy that has worked well for the multimillionaire, a native of Athens, Georgia, who graduated from Stanford University with a BA in economics ("with Honors," as his Register bio points out) and a master's in organizational analysis in 1994. While an undergrad, Kushner starred on the university's men's gymnastics team, a dynasty that won two titles in a row and finished runner-up in Kushner's senior year. He specialized in the rings and pommel horse, events for which careful choreography is essential not only to win, but also to merely survive. After graduating, Kushner moved to Chicago to work for the Boston Consulting Group, where he developed the idea that would earn him his first millions: ChangeMyAddress.com.
The idea now seems laughably obvious: help people, well, change their address online for bills, subscriptions, residency and utilities using a few clicks (the company still survives as MyMove.com). The website drew press praise and profits, and Kushner eventually sold it to a company based in the Boston suburb of Newton, moving there to become the company's vice president. Looking for an investment, Kushner bought Marian Heath Greeting Cards in 2002 (his grandfather and great-grandfather were greeting-card makers) with funding from outside investors and became its CEO. He grew the company by acquiring smaller greeting-card makers, including Renaissance Greeting Cards in 2005.
On the day the card companies' merger was announced, Kushner called an all-employees meeting. "When they opened up the door," a former employee told Boston magazine in a 2011 Kushner profile, "we got into a line like cattle, and there were people at the door with clipboards asking us what our name was, and they looked at us and said, 'Okay, you go upstairs, you go to the cafeteria, you go upstairs, you go to the cafeteria.' Once we started seeing who was in the room, we were like, 'Oh, my God! Oh, my God! Those people downstairs are going to be let go today.' And sure enough, that's what happened. We never got to say goodbye to them."
Almost half of Renaissance's 77 employees were laid off immediately. Kushner defended the layoffs to Boston by comparing the greeting-card industry to the newspaper industry, saying both needed to go through "some incredibly painful transitions" to survive, then complaining, "How anyone could think that we didn't love the business and understand the business and that I didn't have a great vision for the business and leadership for the business? I don't see how anybody could make that argument." He stepped down as Marian Heath CEO in 2009, claiming to Boston, "I had a vision for the business, and they had a very different vision, and they controlled the working capital, so we decided to move on." Kushner won't confirm whether he still holds a majority share in the company.
A year later, Kushner announced he wanted to own newspapers—and not just any fishwrap, but the Boston Globe, an ossified institution in a city where pedigree still means everything. He assembled a group of investors and advisers—some local businessmen, others with impeccable journalistic credentials (newspaper publishers; a former Time Inc. CEO; even Ben Bradlee Jr., son of the legendary Washington Post editor)—and called his group the 2100 Trust, the number representing the year, the idea that his company was in it for the long run. In the spring of 2011, they put in a bid reportedly worth $200 million for the Globe and the other holdings of New England Media Group, including Boston.com, the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, and Telegram.com.
As he has done now, Kushner sounded the same notes about investing in journalism. "We are particularly pleased with the commitment of our growing investor group to the continued and expanded excellence of journalism in Boston and Worcester,'' he told the Globe. "When we have all of the pieces in place to not just purchase, but enrich the institutions, we look forward to making a formal offer.''
But the city's establishment and the nation's media watchers dismissed Kushner's interest as that of a dilettante, and The New York Times (owner of the Globe) never seriously entertained the offer precisely because of that inexperience. As late as this January, Kushner still claimed he had a chance at the Globe. By then, he had already moved on to smaller papers in Maine, preparing to be a small-scale Hearst, and that's where his grandiose plans hit another batch of non-believers: reporters.
* * *
Tom Bell stays silent for a beat, then laughs when asked how his first encounter with Kushner went. "Not very well," he says. "He demanded a lot of cuts to our contracts."
Bell is a general-assignment reporter for the Portland Press Herald, part of MaineToday Media, owner of three dailies and a weekly in the Pine Tree State. He's also the president of the Portland Newspaper Guild, which represents most of the workers at the Press Herald and the newsroom at the Morning Sentinel in Waterville; he has held that position for five years. In that role, Bell and other Guild leaders met with Kushner after 2100 Trust announced on Jan. 6, 2012, that it was taking a controlling interest in MaineToday Media, shortly after the Globe sale went nowhere.
"Our vision, our plans, start with great journalism," Kushner told a Globe reporter about the MaineToday Media purchase. "That is the heart of our business model, why our investors are involved."
Chris Harte, a 2100 Trust investor and former Press Herald publisher, told the Bangor Daily News, "We are acutely aware of the history and impact these newspapers have had on their communities, and our most important job will be meeting the high bar that has been set. Our goal is to invest and grow this business by delivering professional, trusted news to Maine people."
Bell, for his part, says he and other Guild leaders were "optimistic" before meeting Kushner, but that meeting quickly soured. "We believe he thought he had us over the barrel," he says. "He was polite, but he seemed to be someone who felt he had all the cards."
Kushner, Bell says, presented them with a list of demands—50 in total. He wanted to increase the workweek from 37.5 hours to 40 hours, with no additional pay, and for employees to increase their pay-in to health, life and dental insurance. He planned to cut overtime, reduce salaries for salespeople, and cripple the union by being able to outsource work and hire non-guild members to new positions. In addition, Kushner planned to make the Press Herald's editorial writer and columnist positions non-union and no longer keep five full-time photographers.
The guild officers were stunned. "He seemed to want to . . . appeal to our sense of journalism as an important profession," Bell says. "We came to not trust him or his business plan. He was never able to convince us that he had a business plan we could believe in.
"He never really went into much detail of his plan, either," Bell adds. All Kushner would reveal was that he wanted "high-level quality, yet somehow he would find savings to make it happen. And we didn't think he had the abilities to carry it out."
Realizing his hamfisted approach wasn't going over well, Kushner quickly backed off most of the demands. Nevertheless, the guild publicly rejected Kushner, and the 2100 Trust backed out of its bid. Bell and others instead convinced a Maine billionaire to give MaineToday Media a multimillion-dollar loan in exchange for equity in the company and a board seat; since then, Bell says, his reporters' contracts remain intact, the size of the Press Herald's newsroom has doubled, and they're investing in the future with a business plan with which the guild is comfortable.
Of his standoff with the Portland Newspaper Guild, all Kushner would say is "We did, indeed, have a respectful difference of opinions as to the best path forward for the institutions that serve those communities. They wanted to protect the status quo. As we have shown in Orange County, we are committed to a different path of robust hiring and growth, of what we provide to subscribers and advertisers."
But Bell adds, "It's a little odd for us, reading these stories [about Kushner's vision] and to hear about him hiring all these reporters. What we saw . . . I'm not sure how it's going to play in Orange County in the future. We were unconvinced, but maybe we were wrong, and we hope we're wrong.
"My advice" to Register reporters, he concludes, "is to to be careful of how they manage their own personal finances. Don't get in a situation where you have a big mortgage and big car payments because this might not work out."
* * *
The Register's news team is based out of the third floor of the paper's Santa Ana building. The elevators open up to a mini-lobby that features the front page from a year ago, pictures from important stories, and the paper's crown jewel: the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting, awarded for its brilliant series of stories about the UC Irvine fertility-clinic scandal.
That was the past; the future is represented in a nearby hallway featuring 36 pictures and brief bios of the Register's new hires. A display case contains 12 pictures; the other 24 are taped to the wall around it.
The Register's Ken Brusic looks at the pictures, then walks across the office, mostly empty now because it's early in the morning. He points out desks that are currently vacant but will soon host new reporters, plus a wing that will be modified as the Register hires up. "I never thought we'd run out of room," the soft-spoken Brusic says. "Especially as we were running people out."
He has been the editor since 2002, a well-liked man in the newsroom who started with the paper in 1989 as a projects editor. He possesses a humble, fatherly personality of a humanities professor—and maybe that explains why Brusic feels "anxious" under Kushner.
"I don't want to screw this up," he says from his office overlooking the freeway.It's been decorated with photos and clips of past Register triumphs; outside his door is a flat-screen television showing the most-viewed stories on the Register's website for the day. "It's not only important for the Register, but for everyone in the industry for this journey to succeed. The other path is too dreadful to imagine—a suicidal path of more layoffs. But Aaron and Eric [Spitz, CEO of Freedom Communications] are putting a stake down and saying, 'No, nope. That's not the path.'"
It's been under Brusic that the paper has seen its darkest days, days that took a toll on him and his reporters. And the future looked even bleaker when the hedge-fund owners who rescued Freedom Communications from bankruptcy announced in 2010 that they were going to sell off the company. No serious bidders emerged until this year, and none of them looked appealing to Brusic. One was MediaNews Group, run by Dean Singleton, a notorious skinflint who decimated the Long Beach Press-Telegram and has long had his eyes on the Register to complement his collection of Southern California dailies. Another interested party was someone whom Brusic cryptically referred to as "buyers from the South": Doug Manchester, owner of what was once called the San Diego Union Tribune but has turned into a national laughingstock because the paper now trumpets his beliefs, friends and developments. "We were kept in the dark by corporate," Brusic says, referring to the sale of his paper. "All we heard were rumors."
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."
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."
Kushner is already proclaiming success. In September, he sent out a memo trumpeting the fact the Register's daily home delivery had increased 3.4 percent over the previous year, even as the latest Audit Bureau of Circulation figures show a slight dip for daily circulation and digital subscriptions from March to September of this year.
"If you have friends and colleagues who you believe can help us grow, please share the opportunity with them and encourage them to reach out directly to Ken Brusic or any of our deputy editors," Kushner wrote. "We have openings in almost every area of our content group, and if someone fabulous comes through and we don't have a specific opening, we'll do our best to make one."
And that's exactly what attendees hoped for at the end of Kushner's Press Club speech. A phalanx of people lined up to meet him, some with résumés in hand. He was all smiles and confidence. If they couldn't meet Kushner, they sought out other Register reporters and editors—anyone who could get them into the Promised Land.
This article appeared in print as "The Pied Piper of Print: Can Aaron Kushner save The Orange County Register and transform journalism in the process?"
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