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Calif. newspaper defies trend to shrink costs



Published: Wed, January 2, 2013 @ 12:00 a.m.

Associated Press

SANTA ANA, Calif.

New and expanded sections to cover business, automobiles and food. A nearly five-fold increase in community news pages and more investigative reporting. Even daily color comics.

It feels like a throwback to an earlier era at the Orange County Register, where a first-time newspaper owner is defying conventional wisdom by spending heavily to expand the printed edition and playing down digital formats.

Aaron Kushner added about 75 journalists and, with 25 more coming, will have expanded the newsroom by half since his investment group bought the nation’s 20th-largest newspaper by circulation in July.

Changes also include thicker pages with triple the number of colors to produce razor-sharp photos and graphics. By the end of March, the newspaper will have 40 percent more space than under previous owners, Freedom Communications Inc.

Kushner, 39, believes people will pay for high-quality news. His bet is remarkable in an industry where newspapers have shrunk their way to profits for years, slashing costs while seeking clicks on often-free websites to attract online advertising.

As more newspapers charge for online access, Kushner’s spending spree is drawing attention.

“If he’s successful, it’s going to show the way for other papers to follow,” said Walter E. Hussman Jr., publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Seated behind his large, clutter-free desk, the former Stanford University gymnast said his lack of industry experience may be a plus because he hasn’t been through the tough times in newspapering.

“We’re a little crazy in that we really do believe that we can grow this particular newspaper,” Kushner said. It’s too early to know if he’s right. Kushner said advertising revenues have grown, though he won’t say how much.

Average daily circulation rose 5.3 percent as of Sept. 30 from a year earlier to 285,088 on weekdays and 387,547 on Sundays, bucking an industry decline of 0.2 percent, according to the Alliance for Audited Media.

One key test will be when the Register begins charging for online access by the end of March. He said readers will pay the same as the print edition — a contrast to publications that charge online subscribers substantially less.

Kushner, who has a master’s degree in organizational analysis, founded a business in the 1990s that allowed people to change their addresses online and later owned and managed a greeting-card company for seven years.

In 2010, he started an investors group, 2100 Trust LLC, to scout for newspapers. Kushner settled on Freedom and its 107-year-old flagship paper, the Register, for an undisclosed sum. The newspaper serves affluent, growing, well-educated and ethnically diverse communities near Los Angeles, bolstered by 24 community publications.

Kushner became Freedom’s chief executive and the Register’s publisher.

The newsroom is nearing 300 employees, including about 40 year-round interns who are paid $10 an hour and provided housing.

Like other newspapers, the Register experimented over the last decade as its circulation tumbled 40 percent and the newsroom shrank in half. A tabloid paper featuring snappier stories failed, as did a weekly entertainment publication.

To focus more on the print edition, the Register slashed the number of blogs and scrapped an iPad application for news, traffic and weather.

The new owners have introduced a daily page for coverage of a major development, began sending a reporter and photographer to every one of the region’s 50 high- school football games on Fridays and doubled editorial pages.


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