More journalists, higher sales! California paper shows there just MIGHT be another way
What's this? A daily newspaper increasing sales, hiring journalists by the dozen? That was the news that shook the Twitterverse yesterday. And not only that: they're planning to charge online readers the same as print readers! The paper is the Orange County Register, published in Southern California and the tale was pushed out yesterday by Associated Press. I read my version on the San Jose Mercury News website. This was how they put it, "New and expanded sections to cover business, automobiles and food. A nearly fivefold 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." The owner, Aaron Kushner has added about 75 journalists. Another 25 are coming. He will have expanded the newsroom by half since his investment group bought America's 20th-largest newspaper by circulation in July. Advertising revenues have grown, though Kushner won't say how much. But average daily circulation rose 5.3 per cent as of 30 September from a year earlier to 285,088 on weekdays and 387,547 on Sundays. This bucks an industry decline of 0.2 per cent, according to the Alliance for Audited Media. AP wasn't the first to notice Kushner. Last month the magazine Orange County Weekly, in an article headed "The Pied Piper of print?" noted, "Since taking over in August, Kushner and his team have launched an expansion spree not only unprecedented in 21st-century print journalism, but also almost unfathomable." The magazine recorded the new hires and added,"The Register brought back a daily business page after eliminating it just a couple of years ago...Even the actual stock of newsprint is better, making the daily gleam in a way it hasn't for decades." More important, said OC Weekly, the morale at the Register is back at the level of its glory days during the mid-1990s, "when it beat back the Los Angeles Times in a bare-knuckles circulation war." Other changes by Kushner noted by AP: thicker pages with triple the number of colours to produce razor-sharp photos and graphics. By the end of March, the newspaper will have 40 per cent more space than under previous owners, Freedom Communications. Kushner, 39, believes people will pay for high-quality news, said the article in the San Jose Mercury 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," says the AP report. "If he's successful, it's going to show the way for other papers to follow," said Walter Hussman Jr., publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette . Kushner, a 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. "So when we sit down and look at what's possible, our view of the world is different," Kushner said. "We're a little crazy in that we really do believe that we can grow this particular newspaper." Before the end of March the Register will begin charging for online access. Kushner said readers will pay the same as the print edition -- a contrast to publications that charge online subscribers substantially less. "If you have a wonderful restaurant and it cost $10 to come in the front door, I've never understood why it should cost anything less to come through a side door," he said. Compare that with the Guardian in Britain where print readers are to pay £1.40 daily while online readers will still get a free ride. Kushner puts his case for putting both sides on a level footing. "The value of the journalism isn't any less. The reporter isn't paid any less. The photographer isn't paid any less." Kushner originally started an investors group, 2100 Trust, to scout for newspapers. He looked at The Boston Globe, when its owner the New York Times briefly put it up for sale. He looked at MaineToday Media, publisher of The Portland Press Herald. Tom Bell, president of The Portland Newspaper Guild, told the AP reporter Kushner presented the union with 50 demands, including a longer work week and increases in employee health care contributions. "We got off to such a bad start that it was hard to recover," said Bell, who is skeptical Kushner's print bet will succeed. Kushner bought Freedom and its 107-year-old flagship the Register, "for an undisclosed sum," said AP. The newspaper serves affluent, growing, well-educated and ethnically diverse communities near Los Angeles. As Freedom's chief executive, he now works five days a week at the company's Santa Ana headquarters then flies cross-country to his wife and three children in the Boston area. Top editor, Ken Brusic, is one of many execs who have stayed on. The newsroom is nearing 300 employees, including about 40 year-round interns who are paid $10 an hour and given housing. The new owners have resisted pay rises. Pre-Kushner, the Register circulation tumbled 40 per cent in 10 years and the newsroom shrank in half. A tabloid paper featuring snappier stories failed. Reporters got ever-rising numerical targets to generate Web traffic. "It was more like a sales floor than a newsroom," columnist Frank Mickadeit wrote in a recent piece on the Register's "reawakening." The Register has cut the number of blogs from around 40 to less than a dozen - and scrapped an iPad application for news, traffic and weather. A reporter and photographer now go to every one of the region's 50 high school football games on Fridays . "It's a new experience for (a publisher) to say, 'Are you sure you have enough investigative reporters? I think you ought to hire more,'" Brusic told AP. Kushner is looking to buy more newspapers. In an interview, he expressed interest in Tribune newspapers, which include the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and Baltimore Sun. Kushner says the Register has a strong balance sheet and doesn't answer to shareholders seeking quick returns. "If you don't have a clear tangible way to grow revenue you only have one alternative and that's to cut costs," he said. "That path may well work. That's not the path that we're on here." Associated Press told The Drum it didn't know exactly how many of its newspapers carried the report. Huffington Post certainly gave it a good show. "And I myself saw it being talked about a lot on Twitter," said AP media relations director Paul Colford in New York.