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'Orange County Register' Presses Hum With Optimism

Posted: December 9, 2012

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The suburban Los Angeles paper is expanding its newsroom and emphasizing print over digital. Trying to dig the Register out of a financial hole, the new owners see promise in an expanded print edition with more color and more content.

Ken Brusic, senior vice president for content, works in his office overlooking the 5 Freeway. In the past few weeks, Brusic has hired some two-dozen newsroom positions.

Ken Brusic, senior vice president for content, works in his office overlooking the 5 Freeway. In the past few weeks, Brusic has hired some two-dozen newsroom positions. Grant Slater

Copies of The Orange County Register slide through the presses. The Register is the country's 20th most-read daily, with a circulation of about 285,000.

Copies of The Orange County Register slide through the presses. The Register is the country's 20th most-read daily, with a circulation of about 285,000. Grant Slater

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

Circulation numbers are up, which is good news for a paper that used to see double-digit declines. Grant Slater

A worker inspects a copy of a paper fresh off the presses at The Orange County Register's facility in Santa Ana.

A worker inspects a copy of a paper fresh off the presses at The Orange County Register's facility in Santa Ana. Grant Slater

The Register's parent company, Freedom Communications, filed for bankruptcy three years ago with $770 million in debt.

The Register's parent company, Freedom Communications, filed for bankruptcy three years ago with $770 million in debt. Grant Slater

Jerry Ascencio, a pressman at The Orange County Register, works in the basement of the presses.

Jerry Ascencio, a pressman at The Orange County Register, works in the basement of the presses. Grant Slater

Bosses at the Register are determined to show that expanding — rather than shrinking — the newspaper is a good idea.

Bosses at the Register are determined to show that expanding — rather than shrinking — the newspaper is a good idea. Grant Slater

Workers in the pressroom at The Orange County Register in Santa Ana, Calif., where new owners are trying something unique in the industry: expanding the newsroom and putting the emphasis on print, not digital.

Workers in the pressroom at The Orange County Register in Santa Ana, Calif., where new owners are trying something unique in the industry: expanding the newsroom and putting the emphasis on print, not digital. Grant Slater

Bradley McComb, a production and maintenance mechanic, inspects a machine that makes metal plates for the presses.

Bradley McComb, a production and maintenance mechanic, inspects a machine that makes metal plates for the presses. Grant Slater

Orange County Register publisher Aaron Kushner (left) and company president Eric Spitz. This summer, Kushner's Boston-based investment firm, 2100 Trust, bought Freedom Communications and the Register.

Orange County Register publisher Aaron Kushner (left) and company president Eric Spitz. This summer, Kushner's Boston-based investment firm, 2100 Trust, bought Freedom Communications and the Register. Grant Slater

Recent hires include critics to review food, TV and cars, a society columnist, investigative reporters and sportswriters. The paper is still looking for a movie critic, a magazine writer and more reporters.

Recent hires include critics to review food, TV and cars, a society columnist, investigative reporters and sportswriters. The paper is still looking for a movie critic, a magazine writer and more reporters. Grant Slater

Copies of The Orange County Register slide through the presses. The Register is the country's 20th most-read daily, with a circulation of about 285,000.

Copies of The Orange County Register slide through the presses. The Register is the country's 20th most-read daily, with a circulation of about 285,000. Grant Slater

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 2014 Southern California Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.kpcc.org/.

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