21st century newspaper battle: The Orange County Register moves into Long Beach Press-Telegram territory

Orange County Register

Grant Slater/KPCC

The presses at the OC Register, which will now be working overtime to print a 16-page Long Beach edition Monday through Friday.

Many cities don’t even have a local, daily newspaper anymore. But now Long Beach will have two duking it out when The Register goes head-to-head with the Press-Telegram.

The publishers of the two broadsheets are starting a good old-fashioned newspaper war, with insults to match.

Long Beach is California’s 7th biggest city – with a population greater than Oakland – and The Register's Publisher Aaron Kushner says it’s a logical place to expand to from neighboring Orange County.

“There are half-a-million plus people who live in Long Beach and we believe that all of them, over time, will find great value in being part of the Long Beach Register,” Kushner said.

But don’t tell that John Paton. He’s Chief Executive Officer of Digital First Media, which runs the Press-Telegram. It’s been published in Long Beach for more than a century.

“I think Mr. Kushner – with all due respect to he and his partners – is on a fool’s errand,” said Paton. "This won’t work for him. He’ll spend a lot of money and go away, back to Orange County.”

Even though Paton is based in New York, he sees Kushner as the nettlesome outsider.

Paton concedes that the Press-Telegram has a much smaller newsroom than it used to. He says all newspapers have had to cut back. But he says he’s prepared to spend whatever money it takes to beat The Register.

“Whatever resources Kushner is going to spend in that market he’s a fool to think we would not match that,” said Paton. "The resources he’s going to spend, we already spend an x-factor more than that for the Long Beach Press-Telegram. Plus, we’ll spend more that than defending our territory.”

At the Orange County Register, Kushner has emphasized print, saying that's where the advertising money can be found.

"We have a completely different view of what it means to be a newspaper," said Kushner.

He erected an ironclad pay wall around the Register’s website. No sampling is allowed. He also shut down many of the Register’s blogs.

Paton – whose company is after all called Digital First – calls Kushner’s approach arrogant.

“He has a print-first strategy in a world that is increasingly digital,” said Paton.

Who will win?

Ken Doctor, a media analyst at Newsonomics, says Long Beach is hungry for a new paper, because the Press-Telegram is a shadow of its former self. But he points out that it still has about 55,000 subscribers, while the Register starts out with only 2,600 in Long Beach.

“No matter how good the Register is at what it’s doing, it will take time to make a difference in those readers lives,” said Doctor. “So, this is a good three to five-year strategy, at least. It really depends whether the Register has the stomach – and the wallet – to stay the course.”

For a short time, the Register will be doing something Kushner abhors: giving away the paper away for free.

Twenty editorial staffers will be producing a 16-page, two-section “hyper local” Long Beach section that will wrap around The Orange County Register on weekdays. From dog parks to city council meetings, almost no story will be too small to cover.

Doctor says readers will see a sharp contrast with the Press-Telegram.

“You’re going to see one paper that seems intensely local – The Long Beach Register – even though it’s produced outside the area, and another one that’s more a general newspaper with a little bit of local, a little bit of national, and some in between,” said Doctor.

Doctor isn’t predicting who will win the Long Beach Newspaper Battle of 2013. But he’s fairly certain it  won't be a two newspaper town for long.

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