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'Orange County Register' Presses Hum With Optimism

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The Orange Country Register in suburban Los Angeles is expanding its newsroom. Not only that — the owners are emphasizing print, not digital.

In the past few weeks, longtime Register editor Ken Brusic has hired some two-dozen positions: critics to review food, TV and cars, a society columnist and investigative reporters. 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," he says. That was before the digital age, when newspapers were still hugely profitable.

At the Register's headquarters, it sounds like a different era. The Register's presses whir nearly 24 hours a day.

They're printing more color, more pages: double the editorial section, two weekly high school sports sections and a new daily business section.

Brusic doesn't think people stopped subscribing to newspapers because they didn't want to read them. He thinks it's because publishers made too many cutbacks.

"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," he says. "So we're now offering more."

The Financial Puzzle

Brusic has been at the Register for more than two decades, much of which was marked by big layoffs.

Three years ago, the paper went into bankruptcy, but the changing economics of the industry were only part of the problem. The owners had saddled the paper with hundreds of millions in debt, and then cashed out.

So there was no reason to think things would be different when a Boston-based investment firm bought the Register this summer for an undisclosed price. The firm's CEO, 39-year-old Aaron Kushner, came to the paper after running a greeting card company.

"I'm not a media guru. I didn't grow up in the business," he says.

Speaking in his spacious, barely moved-in office, Kushner says his team's lack of newspaper experience could lead to a sense of optimism.

"Perhaps we would have had a harder time maintaining that optimism if we had gone through everything that major newspapers have been through," he says.

Since Kushner took over as publisher, the Register website has cut back on blogs. A paywall is on the way.

He says he has nothing against digital. It's just that for the foreseeable future, most paying subscribers buy the printed product. Plus, he's seeing his advertisers decrease their online spending.

"When you see very smart people like Kohl's or J.C. 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," he says. "They're doing it because it's valuable and it works."

An 'Interesting Experiment'

Rick Edmonds, media business analyst at the Poynter Institute, agrees that advertisers are having second thoughts about digital. The problem is that print advertising isn't doing any better.

"The print numbers have continued, at most papers, falling something like 8 percent year to year," he says.

Given that, Edmonds says, the Register's plan to expand its printed product is risky.

"I'd put it in the category of interesting experiment. It's not what most people are doing," he says.

But Kushner isn't interested in what most people are doing. The publisher not only wants to prove his print-first model can work in Orange County; he now has his sights set an hour north, on a bigger paper.

"We might be able to try and turn the fortunes of the L.A. Times to the point where it's growing on a similar trajectory as the Register," he says.

That's a long way down the road, Kushner cautions, as is the ability to judge whether his model at the Register is a success.

But early indications are positive. Circulation numbers are up slightly, which is good news for a paper that used to see double-digit declines.

Copyright 2012 Southern California Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.kpcc.org/.

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