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A New Frontier

The Orange County Register's new owners see a bright future ahead.

The Orange County Register Publisher and Freedom CEO Aaron Kushner, left, and Freedom President Eric Spitz stand in front of a wall displaying the newspaper's Pulitzer Prizes.

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In Aaron Kushner’s office on the top floor of The Orange Country Register building in Santa Ana, there is a view of the 5 Freeway, and beyond it, the Orchard Hills. It seems a convenient location to check the traffic before leaving work, but Kushner, the new CEO of Freedom Communications and Publisher of The Orange County Register, says he prefers to look past the freeway, to the hills beyond. I wonder if that’s because it’s a calming view – one he presumably needs given the weight of his responsibilities. But the desire to ease stress doesn’t seem to be Kushner’s message, at least not at this moment. Right now, Kushner and the new Freedom President, Eric Spitz, are joking about Spitz’s penchant for diet caffeinated beverages. If one didn’t know any better, this could be a lighthearted exchange between two friends who genuinely enjoy each other’s company, and not what it actually is: a meeting of two businessmen who have just embarked on what some might consider an act of lunacy: buying a newspaper.

That’s the scoop about print: Entire trade publications and websites are dedicated to chronicling its decline, and the general consensus seems to be that print is dead, or at the very least, dying a slow and agonizing death. When this all too obvious point comes up, Spitz is undaunted. “This is an industry that seems to have thrown up the white flag and said, ‘This is not going to work; we’re going away and it’s just a matter of time.’ If you read the reports from the leadership of this industry, there’s not a lot of hope. But we believe it’s there, and that’s particularly interesting, intriguing, fun, and challenging for us.”

Kushner agrees. “We’ve spent a healthy amount of time talking about what we want to do and why we want to do it,” he says. “We’ve worked for over two years to figure out a business model to really grow newspapers, and if it works the way we expect it to, it will change the way people think about newspapers.”

The business model Kushner refers to is one that is subscriber-centered, meaning that the newspaper first looks to add value for the subscriber through in-depth reporting, exclusive local news and engaging storytelling by talented journalists. The thought is that when subscribers are happy, circulation increases; when circulation increases, local businesses are persuaded to advertise; and when more businesses advertise, revenue increases. “It’s a very virtuous circle,” says Kushner. “The majority of our efforts and focus right now are on elevating what we’re doing in print.”

This approach, however, is not the conventional wisdom in the digital information age. With more and more newspapers turning to the Internet as a media outlet, print products have been declining rapidly over the past five years. “The common objection is, ‘I can get [news] online for free,’” says Spitz. So the question becomes: Why pay for the newspaper?

Simple, says Kushner. “You have to have stuff that’s worth reading.”

And it’s about choosing the right types of content, says Spitz. “There are plenty of subjects [The Orange County Register] reports on that you can’t get online for free. Almost everything we do is local to Orange County. We are the authority. If you don’t read [The Orange County Register], you’re not getting good content.”

This doesn’t mean that Kushner and Spitz are ignoring digital media; they simply see an online platform as a complement to the print product – and one that readers should pay for. “In terms of the essential value that we provide the community, [creating online content] costs a lot of money and it’s really valuable,” says Kushner.

Not charging readers to peruse an online newspaper is where many in the industry have gone wrong, says Spitz. “If you’re in the business of spending a lot of money to create content and then you turn around and give it away for free, you’re not going to be in business very long,” he says. “Why does the newspaper industry think it makes sense to create content and give it away for free?”

Their experience outside the publishing world gives them perspective. Kushner, who received his BA and MA at Stanford (where as an undergraduate he was a competitive gymnast) and Spitz, an MBA grad from MIT’s Sloan School of Management, are both seasoned business executives, having successfully run companies ranging from greeting cards to beer to social media and sports technology. Neither has ever worked in the newspaper industry, a point that goes relatively unnoticed, and is likely irrelevant in the larger business-oriented picture.

“We’ve both done a lot of non-newspaper business but I think there are a few common threads,” says Kushner, “[a couple] of them being able to make difficult decisions and move quickly with what we know needs to be done.” But it’s also about building community through a worthy institution, Kushner says, a mission in which both he and Spitz strongly believe. “Newspapers serve an incredibly important role in terms of binding, forming and inspiring the community, and there isn’t really any great substitute when they’re not robust,” says Kushner. “The essence of a great newspaper is connecting all the parts of the community to each other in a way that’s meaningful. It’s really important.”

“I’ve been aiming at the changing the world stuff for a while,” says Spitz. “I’m pleased to find something that is actually going to work. We think there’s a way to make this industry that has been hugely important over time continue to thrive. That’s the challenge that gets me up every day.”

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