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The OC Register’s publisher has bold plan to revive print journalism. But will it work?

The rise of the Internet has led to a seemingly inexorable decline in once mighty newspapers, characterized by decreasing readership and slumping advertising sales (including notably painful losses in classified advertising). Papers across the country have responded by slashing editorial staffs, reducing coverage, limiting delivery days, migrating online – and in a sad number of cases, going out of business entirely.  Virtually every newspaper is struggling to create a business model that will enable it to survive in the digital age.

Now a Southern California paper is pursuing an utterly contrarian strategy: boldly increasing investment in an effort to make the daily newspaper a central player in the local community, an essential source of information for local readers, and a compelling marketing vehicle for advertisers.

Addressing a sold-out crowd of public relations professionals at a Feb. 21 luncheon meeting hosted by the Public Relations Society of America’s Orange County Chapter, Orange County Register publisher Aaron Kushner shared his radical and audacious vision for the venerable newspaper. Among other steps, the Register has:

  • Bolstered its staff with the hiring of some 100 new reporters;
  • Expanded its news hole by 40 percent, which includes reviving a stand-alone business section, creating a “varsity sports” section to complement its regular sports section, and adding (soon) a “faith and values” section;
  • Acquired Churm Media, publisher of such titles as OC Metro, OC Family and OC Menus;
  • Strengthened its stable of community weeklies; and
  • Launched a regular series of magazines, thus becoming the largest magazine publisher on the West Coast.

Bold moves all.  But what makes Kushner’s strategy particularly daring is the Register’s unabashed commitment to print, rather than following the industry’s steady movement toward the digital realm.

“We don’t care about Twitter. We don’t care about Facebook. We don’t care about click-throughs,” Kushner says. What they do care about, Kushner claims, “are compelling stories.”

I’m all for compelling stories, but will a print-centric approach really work in 2013 and beyond?

Kushner says that when his 2100 Trust investment group assumed control of the paper last July, he was greeted by a staff evincing undeniable depression; not surprising, considering how many of their colleagues had been pink-slipped in recent years. Employees’ initial response to his stated vision was skepticism…which then evolved into hope.

Seven months later – perhaps in response to the sheer force of Kushner’s energy and will – Register employees are expressing a sense of optimism. Maybe Kushner’s daring notions, when combined with sufficient capital, can make his dream a reality.

His fundamental strategy involves a “subscriber first” focus, combined with an emphasis on what he calls “community journalism.”

“We believe deeply that newspapers matter, that they play a crucial role in educating and binding a community,” Kushner says. He is convinced his newspaper has both the ability and the responsibility to help the community grow, and began by launching a strikingly innovative campaign to support local charities. He also claims an interest in helping local nonprofits and businesses tell their stories.

And Kushner believes the best medium for such storytelling is the old-fashioned newspaper, printed and delivered on a daily basis. Kushner argues that one “rarely gets the full context (of a story) digitally,” and notes that online readers searching for specific news items typically fail to uncover interesting and valuable stories they were not initially seeking – what some have called the “serendipity factor”. (Though others have argued that the serendipity effect is actually more powerful in social media.)

Kushner also questions the value of many forms of online advertising – yet Google and Craigslist are among those who have demonstrated that it can work, and I have trouble imagining how conventional newspapers can possibly compete with Internet-based classified advertising.

I think Kushner’s vision is inspiring and offers fascinating potential. Certainly, a well-produced newspaper like the Orange County Register is well positioned to serve as the informational focal point for the community, and many of the newspapers that have continued to survive or even thrive have done so by taking a hyper-local approach to news.

Moreover, while trust is newspapers has declined in recent years (partially in response to what has been called “agenda journalism”), the need for credible sources of news and information has hardly diminished in our information age. Well-researched, well-written and professionally edited stories remain popular and important. Without question, Kushner has dramatically improved the quality of the newspaper, and with the impending erection of a near impenetrable paywall to block non-subscribers from accessing its digital content, he should be able to stanch the information cannibalism that has afflicted virtually all of the nation’s news outlets.

Yet I question – sadly – the long-term viability of a print-centric business model.

I personally enjoy reading an old-fashioned newspaper or magazine, and won’t deny my hope that Kushner’s gamble works. But I remain skeptical.

For one thing, reader habits have changed, perhaps irrevocably. As Kushner acknowledges, many people actively search out information on specific topics, or from specific writers, bloggers or websites. I appreciate the serendipity factor, but I’m not sure enough other people do to support Kushner’s business model. While a lot of people, including many older readers, prefer the newspaper’s “form factor” and can barely tolerate reading lengthy articles on a desktop display, that advantage is being quickly eroded by the rise of tablets and e-readers (which offer advantages of their own, such as the ability to adjust font sizes and embed links to related articles, photos, charts and videos).

I also question whether young people will ever embrace the daily newspaper habit. Perhaps I’m wrong and the enjoyment of newspaper reading will mirror the enjoyment of classical music: as Mark Penn noted in his book “Microtrends,”  producers of classical music have long worried about the graying of their audience, yet “classical music has always been an acquired taste, and in every generation, middle-aged people come to it for the first time.” (emphasis in the original)

During his speech to the PRSA, Kushner also mentioned his wife’s interest in scrapbooking, and discussed the tradition of posting interesting or relevant articles on the family refrigerator, neither of which is possible with digital media. True, perhaps, but I doubt such factors will compel large numbers of people to pay for a newspaper subscription.

And it will take new subscribers to make Kushner’s model work. After all, it costs a lot of money to print and hand-deliver a newspaper 365 days a year. Perhaps Kushner and his partners have sufficiently deep pockets to afford this adventure in print. I’m reminded of the line in Citizen Kane when Orson Wells’ Charles Foster Kane responds to the financial concerns of his banker and guardian:

 “You’re right, I did lose a million dollars last year. I expect to lose a million dollars this year. I expect to lose a million dollars next year. You know, Mr. Thatcher, at the rate of a million dollars a year, I’ll have to close this place…in 60 years!”

 Still, I continue to subscribe to the Orange County Register (and other forms of old media), and I’ll continue to cheer unabashedly for Aaron Kushner and his ambitious plans for the paper. I genuinely hope he succeeds in his vision and that my skepticism is misplaced.

In the short term, there seems little doubt that the Orange County Register and its employees, along with the overall community in Orange County, will benefit from his bold experiment. In the long term? Stranger things have happened, I suppose.

 

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