Executive Session with Aaron Kushner

OC Register: 'We Are Not A Tech Company'

Since Aaron Kushner purchased the Orange County Register last year, the newspaper has doubled down on its print product and has been largely vague about its digital plans. In an interview with NetNewsCheck, Kushner talks about the future of the OC Register and print, and says the company is still eyeing possible acquisitions — namely Tribune Co.'s newspapers.
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Does the OC Register have a digital Achilles’ heel?

Since coming under the direction of new publisher Aaron Kushner last July, the paper has drawn national attention for reversing just about every trend in newspaper publishing. Where other papers have cut their staffs to the bone, Kushner added journalists and restored long-shuttered beats. Other papers have cut back their pages or even their daily print presence, and Kushner bulked up the Orange County Register’s size, even adding color to more pages.

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But what about digital? In this area, Kushner’s much-followed plans have been more hazy. While he has indicated the paper will launch a paywall at an unspecified date, Kushner shut down a groundbreaking iPad app, The Peel, that targeted a younger demographic. Video is on the back burner, and mobile looks to be there, too.

In an interview with NetNewsCheck, Kushner emphasized his strategy that building up the newsroom — and improving and increasing its content — is the only way to effectively engage users. He said he doesn’t see an end to print, and younger readers will find their way to the paper based on the strength of its relevant content to them, not the form factor. And he said that he’s still eyeing other papers — notably Tribune Co.’s properties — as potentially fertile for his “subscriber-first” approach.

 


An edited transcript.

Brand Connections

 

You have put a lot into the OC Register since you acquired it last year — added staff, added beats, added pages. Has your investment hit its limit yet?

That would imply that it’s an experiment. There are no experiments. There is no exit. You have to go in with the expectation that you are going to be responsible for that newspaper indefinitely. So we don’t think of it as we have a limit or that there’s some time thing. We’re committed to Orange County and what we’re doing with the Register, and we’re going to do everything we can to give our subscribers more value for the money that they give us.

Can you put a dollar figure on the investment to date?

No.

Exactly how much additional staff have you brought on or brought back to the paper?

I’ve lost track, but our first target for the newsroom was to add about 100 people and we’ve probably added at least that many elsewhere in the organization.

Did the staff additions extend to any of your community papers?

A huge amount of it was at our community papers. We’ve completely upgraded all 24 of our community papers. We’re in the final processes of that — making them full, stand-alone broadsheet papers.

Given your strategic focus on print, the clearest measure of your success so far would be your subscriber base. So are print subscriptions up? If so, by how much?

Circulation revenue is up a very healthy amount. Circulation count surprisingly is flat to slightly up. Our expectation is circulation count will go down before it goes up given what we’re doing in terms of adding much more value for our subscribers. We’ve been very pleasantly surprised at how the community has supported our commitment to put more into the paper.

What about print advertising revenue? Is that up?

It is.

About what percent of the OC Register's overall revenue will come from digital in 2013?

Around 10%

It has been reported that you’re interested in possibly acquiring Tribune’s print assets. How seriously are you considering it? Would you see making the same kind of play at those papers — adding staff and bulking print back up?

We’re very serious about acquiring other papers. We have one of the best, if not the the best, investment banks in the country working with us — Morgan Stanley. We have a lot of time and energy invested in looking at other markets where we could do what we’re doing in Orange County.

We don’t have a menu of different business plans, and frankly our business plan is less of a business plan than it is a belief that newspapers matter and we exist to help build our community. Therefore everything that we would do at any particular newspaper if we were going to acquire it would flow from that core fundamental belief of why we exist.

That said, every market and every newspaper is different. So the manifestations of how we build community in other markets I’m sure would have nuances and differences. We take our responsibility very seriously. It is a business, but much more fundamentally, major newspapers are institutions, and we very explicity have no exit plan.

In essence, we take very seriously the diligence that we have done and would have to do before we would buy any other paper. We really have to be confident that our model would work both from a financial perspective and operationally before we would commit to buy another paper.

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Comments (2) -

mirandajayne Nickname posted over 4 years ago
The Register's content-driven strategy as a comprehensive investment in all possible delivery forms is incisively correct, but insisting on print to roll-out this improved content handicaps the value of the content in today's reality. While it is completely true that a community of readers will want and pay for the unique value of meaningful local coverage, the habits of consuming content have evolved. People look at their phones or laptops before they get out of bed now, and choose content based on that quick glance, and later in the day or evening, what comes to them via their mobile devices and computers. They may read more content than ever, and great local content would rank high, but only with the digital delivery option that is how readers now engage with news.
mirandajayne Nickname posted over 4 years ago
Establishing credibility as the most comprehensive, authoritative, well-written source for the regional issues that impact potential readers protects the value of the content from ad-based disruptive competitors, but it needs to be available in formats people actually use now. Also, the appetite for coverage of local athletics is tied to mentions of specific teams and players, and no one "clips" print to share such mentions. They need and will want the ability to share these mentions within what is familiar to them and their peers. Either the NYT model of limited monthly article-by-article access or the WSJ model of some free access and some paid, or The NYer magazine model of no free anything. All protect unique, desired content by charging for the digital access, but they all offer digital access.

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