When you hear about newspapers these days, it’s usually the same story: They’re going out of business or slashing their budgets to try to hang on.
But at The Orange County Register, the new owners are trying something unique in the industry: They’re expanding the newsroom, and putting the emphasis on print, not digital.
In the last few weeks, longtime Register editor Ken Brusic has hired some two dozen newsroom positions: critics to review food, TV and cars, a society columnist, investigative reporters, and beat writers to cover the NFL and USC and UCLA sports.
He’s still looking for a movie critic, a magazine writer, and many more reporters.
“We haven’t seen this kind of hiring since the early ‘90s,” Brusic said. That was when newspapers were still hugely profitable, before the digital age.
The Register has recently added more color and two weekly high school sports sections, a daily business section, and a larger editorial section. Brusic doesn’t think people quit subscribing to newspapers because they didn’t want to read them. Instead, think of your morning coffee.
“You spend your four dollars and you get a cup of coffee and each time you go, if that coffee gets weaker and the amount of coffee in the cup gets smaller, you’re going to stop going to Starbucks and find someplace else to go,” Brusic said. “That’s essentially what publishers have been doing. They’ve been offering less and attempting in some cases to charge more for it. And people are smart. People won’t put up for that sort of thing. So we’re now offering more.”
The Register was founded in 1905 and bought 30 years later by Raymond Cyrus Hoiles, who wanted a platform for his libertarian views.
The Hoiles family owned the paper until its parent, Freedom Communications, filed for bankruptcy three years ago $770 million in debt.
Like other newspapers that have filed for Chapter 11, the changing economics of the industry were part of the problem. But the owners had also saddled the paper with unsustainable debt before they cashed out.
This summer when Boston-based investment firm, 2100 Trust, led by Aaron Kushner, bought Freedom Communications, there was no reason to think things would be different. Kushner, 39, had no newspaper experience. He had a run a greeting card company and a moving website.
“I’m not a media guru. I didn’t grow up in the business,” Kushner said, speaking in his spacious fifth floor, barely moved-in office. He said his team’s lack of newspaper experience could be an asset.
“We have been able to come in with a sense of optimism and a belief in what is possible. Perhaps we would have had a harder time maintaining that optimism if we had gone through everything major newspapers have been through,” said Kushner.
Since Kushner took over as publisher, the Register website has cut back its blogs. A paywall is on the way.
Kushner said he has nothing against digital. It’s just that for the foreseeable future the majority of his paying subscribers buy the print product. The Register is the country’s 20th most-read daily, with a circulation of about 285,000.
Kushner sees the number of digital subscribers increasing, but he said digital can never replace print.
“When we start up all of our presses here each night, what is in the paper each morning is definitive in a way that digital news will probably never be,” he said.
And Kushner has doubts about when, or whether, digital news will be ever profitable. Online readers, he said, avoid ads. Print readers seek them out. Kushner said he’s seeing his advertisers big and small decrease their online ad spending.
“When you see very smart people like Kohl’s or JC Penney who are actively reducing what they are doing digitally in order to do more in print, they’re not doing it because it’s trendy. They’re doing it because it’s valuable and it works,” he said.
Rick Edmunds, media business analyst at the Poynter Institute, agrees that advertisers are having second thoughts about digital. The problem is print advertising isn’t doing any better.
“The print numbers at most papers have continued falling something like eight percent a year,” Edmunds said.
Given that, Edmunds says the Register’s plan to expand its printed product is risky.
“I’d put it in the category of interesting experiment,” said Edmunds. “It’s not what most people are doing.”
Kushner isn’t interested in what most people are doing. He not only wants to prove his print-first model can work at the Register, he has his sights set on bigger papers.
He tried unsuccessfully to buy Maine’s largest newspaper and expressed interest in The Boston Globe. Now he has his eye on the L.A. Times, which is emerging from bankruptcy.
“We certainly have shown that we are capable of moving incredibly quickly with large amounts of capital and have a business model that if diligence ends up panning out, we might be able to try to turn the fortunes of the L.A. Times to where it’s growing on a similar trajectory to The Register,” said Kushner.
That’s a long way down the road, cautions Kushner, as is the ability to judge whether his model at the Register is a success. Early indications are positive.
Circulation numbers are up, which is good news for a paper that used to see double digit declines. Brusic was at the paper during those declines and survived huge staff cutbacks. He’s determined to show that expanding – rather than shrinking — the newspaper is a good idea.
“We certainly don’t want to screw up the opportunity,” said Brusic. “If we can show the way in which we go about building an audience, building loyal subscribers…if that works we can be a beacon for others in the industry.”