December 16, 2013
Owner of the Orange County Register opens LA Times competitor
by Sal Robinson
It’s not, on the whole, a time when many new daily newspapers are being launched, but the ones that exist are sorting out how to attract more viewers, or how to convert viewers into funding, or what life when they’re owned by a billionaire with a ray gun will look like.
On the other hand, there’s Aaron Kushner, owner of the Orange County Register, who announced last week that he’s starting up a daily print paper for the Los Angeles area. The Los Angeles Register will begin publication sometime early next year, and it’ll be staffed partly by Orange County Register employees and partly by new hires. In an interview after the announcement, Kushner stressed its L.A. focus:
It will be the LA Register, not the Orange County Register… We’re not a national paper, we are a local community-building paper, so that means having local people in the community they’re covering.
The Los Angeles Times has long been without a competitor, since the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner folded in November 1989. The L.A Times’ coverage of the plans for the new paper was fairly tight-lipped, with Andrea Chang writing that
The Los Angeles Register would be the latest addition to the small but rapidly growing newspaper empire run by entrepreneur Aaron Kushner…
Since buying Freedom [Freedom Communications, the Orange County Register’s parent company] last year, Kushner has invested heavily in print content and expanding editorial staff.
That’s something of an understatement: in the year that Kushner has owned the Orange County Register, he has hired 140 journalists and 100 sales staff. According to a report in the Columbia Journalism Review by Ryan Chittum, Kushner’s hiring has boosted many departments and poached from many storied newsrooms:
The Register has added investigative reporters, enlarged its graphics team, re-opened its DC bureau, and doubled staff at its 22 community weeklies. It has hired a James Beard Award-winning food critic and veterans of The New York Times, Time, and the Los Angeles Times.
He has also vastly expanded the size of the print edition, not only beyond its own past page-counts, but also beyond the size of other major papers. From the CJR article again:
A recent run-of-the-mill Monday edition had 72 pages and eight standalone sections. The Los Angeles Times—once the Register’s hated rival in Orange County and a paper with nearly three times its print circulation—published 38 pages the same day. (The Washington Post printed 44, while The New York Times ran 48.) The Register has grown so fat that its Monday paper—typically the smallest edition of the week—approaches the size of Sunday papers in bigger markets. That week, the Sunday Seattle Times, a paper with comparable circulation, had just 94 pages. The Register’s Sunday paper had 242.
This is, as numerous commentators have said, a giant bet on print, with a corresponding relative disinterest in the digital side of the paper: the Orange County Register website is pretty terrible, and has a hard paywall. But Kushner’s aims are clearly counter-intuitive: he’s giving Orange County Register the resources of a national paper, but firmly focusing on local readerships — for instance, he hired Rob Curley, longtime practitioner of and advocate for hyperlocal journalism, to run the local weekly papers published throughout Orange County. It’s like Kushner’s running a high-production-value, so far successful print version of Patch.com.
But a metropolitan newspaper, as Ken Doctor has pointed out in his “newsonomics” column for the Nieman Journalism Lab, is something of a different beast. Doctor describes them as “caught between the national/global players and community dailies,” and it remains to be seen whether Kushner can use the same formula — whether or not he’s actually making a profit — in new terrain.
Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.