Todd Harmonson Is Guiding the Orange County Register Into a Digital First Era

Harmonson: "I want to do as much as I can for as long as I can"
Harmonson: "I want to do as much as I can for as long as I can"
Brian Feinzimer

Todd Harmonson has experienced nearly all the lives of the Orange County Register. As a high-schooler in the 1980s, he took a summer journalism seminar under legendary crime reporter Larry Welborn at a time when OC's paper of record was one of the most profitable suburban newspapers in the United States. Harmonson continued reading the daily while attending Cal State Fullerton in the early 1990s, an era in which the Reg was about to win a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the UC Irvine fertility scandal. He joined the Register as a sports reporter in 1998, the last gasp of daily journalism's Golden Age, and has been there to witness its sturm und drang ever since: layoffs in the early 2000s, bankruptcy in 2009, massive growth in staff and page count under Aaron Kushner a couple of years ago, bankruptcy again in 2015, and the paper's purchase by Digital First Media this spring after a fierce bidding war with the Los Angeles Times.

So when editor Rob Curley was pushed out shortly after the acquisition, soon followed by managing editor Donna Wares announcing her resignation, Harmonson said, "I was prepared" for whatever might happen next. But the assistant managing editor, who had spent his entire Register career in their superb sports department, admits he was surprised when Digital First tapped him to take over the paper in the newly created title of senior editor. Harmonson now reports directly to Frank Pine, the executive editor of the Southern California News Group (SCNG), the new chain of 10 11 Southern California newspapers spanning the region from the Long Beach Press-Telegram to Redlands Daily Facts—and of which the Register is the largest member.

The hiring came as a relief to the Register newsroom, where the 47-year-old is a respected figure for his light editing hand and unwavering support of writers, as well as the fact he comes from within. He was at the Orange County Press Club's awards gala on May 26 at the Balboa Bay Club, sitting with Welborn and other retired Register vets. While his staff at other tables whooped and hollered after every Reg award, Harmonson quietly applauded every winner.

"We all thought Digital First would come in and install one of their own—you know, someone to keep tabs on us," said one longtime Register staffer who requested anonymity. "But Todd is one of us. Everyone wishes him well and knows he'll fight for us."

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Harmonson is a quiet guy but very much a Generation-Xer, someone who peppers his conversations with words such as "great" and "cool" and who wears short-sleeved, button-down shirts with a bit of tiki flair. He now helps run the California Scholastic Press Association, the summer seminar he attended as a high-school student; for the past 26 years, he has taken a week's worth of vacation and traveled to San Luis Obispo to teach workshops on his own dime. Harmonson has a self-effacing sense of humor; asked why he decided to go into sports journalism, he'll tell you it's because "my jumper was weak, and I wasn't going to get taller."

But despite his easygoing ways, Harmonson realizes he has a daunting task ahead of him: navigating the Register through new ownership, which is still trying to dig out of the financial and morale-sucking disaster that were the Kushner years, in an ever-changing industry.

"People are still in the feeling-out period" with Digital First, he admitted over al pastor tacos at Taqueria Zamora in Santa Ana. "But my gut feeling was that people thought that there were going to be drastic changes—and there hasn't been. We can learn from what others in the group have done, but they're also learning from us—and that's what's really a great thing to see."

The father of two three came to the Register from the Torrance Daily Breeze (now an SCNG paper) in 1998 to cover the push for an NFL expansion team in Southern California. "I was dealing with billionaires; you can't be intimidated by them," he says. After that ended with no local football, he covered USC during the Pete Carroll years, requesting a change to head OC Varsity, the paper's wildly successful high-school-sports section, after missing his child's first basketball game for a "meaningless" Arizona State basketball game. "I always saw myself as more of a writer, and I thought my mentor [at the Register] would be there forever," he says, explaining how he never imagined himself as any type of editor. "But he got laid off."

As he moved up, the Register kept losing more and more people, save for the Kushner era, during which so many people got hired that, Harmonson says, "you couldn't find a parking space in the parking garage." He's nevertheless proud of the work the paper did in those times of turmoil. "We lost a lot of people. Everyone was vulnerable, but it was important to stay and do what we could to move forward."

Harmonson isn't worried that his all-sports background will limit his abilities as senior editor to understand covering all of Orange County—far from it. "Sportswriting is great training for anyone who wants to do anything in journalism," he says. "Go cover a high-school football game. Try taking running stats, plus do 350 words. You have to be organized, think on your feet—and you have to hit your deadline. People make a big deal about Election Night—try doing it every Friday night. And the news guys at least get pizza; we [in sports] do it so often that we don't get pizza."

True to its name, Digital First is emphasizing that newspapers focus on offering their stories across multiple platforms; workshops to teach all Register reporters everything from SEO-friendly headlines to recording their own videos are forthcoming. Harmonson welcomes the strategy, a dramatic change from previous owners who emphasized the print edition above all else. "We'll still do the great journalism the paper is known for," he says, "but we've got to take it to where readers are finding it."

Given the staff turmoil of the past couple of years, Harmonson is "evaluating the ways in which we could save money by cutting things as much as possible, instead of people," emphasizing that the paper has saved smartly by seeing lesser fees in production and services through the virtues of belonging to a chain. He thinks the Register is doing good work, but he wants to devote more resources to reporting on homelessness and cannabis; toward that end, the paper has a full-time cannabis reporter in Brooke Edwards Staggs, the Register's first. And, he says, the days of listicles and clickbait is over. "It's not going to be perfect, but good work is always going to be important to us. . . . I want to do as much as I can for as long as I can."

[6/3/16 Editor's note: It was originally reported Harmonson has two children. He has three. We originally reported SCNG has 10 daily newspapers. They have 11. The Weekly regrets these errors.]

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