Why is New OC Register Editor Rob Curley Already So Loathed in the Newsroom?

From the moment the memo came out confirming news we had broken earlier in the morning--that the Orange County Register was laying off dozens of veterans, including longtime editor Ken Brusic, and putting deputy editor of local news Rob Curley in charge--the emails started coming in from the private (and made-up!) accounts of Reg folks, all collectively yelling, "AH, HELL NO!"

The best one came from a continual source who calls himself N. Christian Anderson III but who isn't the Reg's legendary former editor and publisher. This mysterious person has never left any contact information, but has predicted EVERYTHING correctly about the Reg's moves over the past six months, weeks before it happened.

"Nothing personal against Rob Curley," "Anderson" wrote, "but Kushner just canned an editor who oversaw three Pulitzer prizes and replaced him with a guy whose claim to fame is, um, hmm, oh yeah, developing a database of bars in Lawrence, KS, and spending tons of money on interactive projects."

HAHAHAHAHA! But one wonders: why all the animus toward Curley? The answer is in his past, which shows a person big on ambition and buzz, but with little long-term sustainable results to show for it.

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Curley first came to national prominence in 2005, when he headed the digital efforts of a newspaper in Lawrence, Kansas, to the point where it earned attention from both NPR and the New York Times. He parlayed that into a position with the Washington Post heading a hyper-local website for a Virginia suburb that also received national attention; after that, he headed off to the Las Vegas Sun in 2008 to helm their digital operations.

See a pattern here? Curley jumped from opportunity to opportunity to opportunity, wherever the money was for him to play with. At the Sun, Curley was put in charge of their digital operations, and spearheaded an effort to start brand-new broadcasts and other efforts for the paper that initially brought the Sun widespread acclaim. In the newsroom, however, it brought chaos. A video effort that the Sun spent millions of dollars on only lasted four months. He angered the long-timers, and created a team around him distinct from everyone else.

The best analysis came from a 2010 Las Vegas CityLife post-mortem on the efforts, and its insights into Curley at the time are telling. "The only thing I love more than journalism is capitalism," he told the paper at the time, and that's a perfect philosophy for Freedom Communications, no? But Curley's way toward profit wasn't the paper-first mentality that Kushner has instituted on Grand Street but a focus on clickbait--the very thing Kushner has professed to loathe and is now impossible with their mighty (but increasingly porous) paywall.

"There are a lot of reasons you want to move on," one former Curley staffer told CityLife for the story. "But one of them was the direction they were taking the video department...It was getting away from hard news and moving into infotainment, celebrity stuff. Fun. Fluff. I was just not really interested in all that."

It got worse. Curley became so mercurial, according to the article, that in one instance, "one reporter asked a question about a search engine that wasn't working. The reporters in the room considered the question pretty innocent. Apparently Curley did not. Afterward, the Sun's editors instructed reporters not to ask Curley any more questions; if they had problems with the website, they could take it up with an editor."

But that was hardly Curley's biggest sin in Sin City. The CityLife article also revealed that Curley played footsie with the idea of payola. "Curley devised a new strategy," it said. "Promotional partners, such as casinos, would be able to buy segments on [Curley's news show]. Product placement would be sold. Curley described it in an article on emediavitals.com as a model that would be similar to newspaper advertorials, which are special articles purchased by advertisers and run in a different section of the newspaper."

Sound familiar? Because that's what the Register has done with its weekly university sections, which have proven an ethical embarrassment to the company. But wait, there's more!


Kushner: Has found his guy in Curley
Kushner: Has found his guy in Curley
Photo by Kevin Liu

The Sun's Curley-led experiments largely ended at the end of 2009, with layoffs of more than 20 staffers, and a newsroom chopped in half. Curley stayed on until May 2012, when CityLife reported he just stopped showing up to work. "When Rob Curley came here nearly four years ago," the head of the Sun wrote in a staff memo, "he explained to me that his goal eventually was to return to the Midwest. Essentially we had him on loan until the call of the plains became too great."

A month later, Curley joined the Register.

CityLife concluded its last Curley story (quick aside: bothone of those stories happened when CityLife was headed by OC boy Steve Sebelius, who's now with the Las Vegas Review-Journal--OC represents!) with the following: "Curley encouraged old media dinosaurs to embrace new technology. But he might have sacrificed the soul of the Sun in the process. His website for the Sun will probably stand for as long as the paper is publishing. But it'll be a long time before another paper builds a multimillion dollar studio for a fast-talking Internet salesman."

What does Curley say about himself? From his own bio: "Curley's ground-breaking work has been documented in everything from college journalism textbooks to industry and mainstream magazines and white papers to even a 20-minute segment on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. In a 2005 Sunday business story, the New York Times referred to Curley's work in Lawrence as 'the newspaper of the future.'"

Be happy, Reg newsroom: you have a genius in your midst...until he decides to bounce after burning millions.

Email: garellano@ocweekly.com. Twitter: @gustavoarellano.

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