Thursday, July 11, 2013

Newspaper owner takes staff on wild rollercoaster ride

I was really hoping the new owners of The Orange County Register found the magic elixir for a receipt of financial success. For years the newspaper had gone through the same revenue problems that have plagued the media industry. Their formula was like most other newspapers attempting to cut their way to profits.

Staff reductions were a regular occurrence, and online was a huge priority even though revenue barely paid for production costs. This caused a smaller print edition with less content. With the drop in quality, losses in circulation and advertising soon followed.

In comes the new owner Aaron Kushner who believed that better content and a focus on print were keys to success. The Register’s free website was blocked now by a paywall for subscribers only. Hundreds of people were hired back.

Mr. Kushner continued his push by starting the Long Beach Register, purchased the Riverside Press Enterprise, and recently launched the Los Angeles Register to compete with the Los Angeles Times.

This was a newspaper company hiring and expanding! And doing so by making their content better to engage more readers and advertisers. Both my father Martin and myself always believed this is key to maintaining a thriving newspaper business. Now another owner believes this too was a key for success.

After about a year and millions of dollars later, something changed. The Register ran out of money.

Like other publishers, Mr. Kusher believed these changes would have an immediate payoff. Readers and advertisers would see these improved print editions and come flocking back. But guess what? They did not.

It’s been my experience that it takes a solid three years for customers to notice improvements in any newspaper or website. Patience is critical and costly. But if you believe in what you are doing, stick with it.

Unfortunately, the Register is in crisis mode again as they quickly unravel all the initiatives started just over one year ago. Back are the buyouts and layoffs, unpaid furloughs, axing the company matched 401(k), firing of senior management, and even telling advertisers they will get editorial coverage if they spend money with them.

Communication with the staff about the future has been spotty at best. One longtime veteran in the newsroom agonized when advised to take a buyout or risk being laid off. Just before handing in the paperwork for the buyout, she was told they wanted her to stay and the buyout was off the table.

Now in other efforts to save money, the Long Beach Register has been closed, and the LA edition is being produced with no additional staff. There’s even talk of selling the Register building in Santa Ana to offset accumulating debt.

Mr. Kushner continues to stay positive even as the company flounders. “We're highly confident that the team as it continues will be able to continue to deliver against our mission of community building,” Mr. Kushner said in a recent interview. “We invested in community building, not in print, not in digital. We invested in our communities.”

This all sounds great. But community building takes time. And it’s looking like that’s something The Orange County Register simply does not have.

COURIER staff honored in state and national contests

It’s newspaper contest season again, and the two largest competitions are organized by the California Newspaper Publishers Association (CNPA) and the National Newspaper Association (NNA). Both organizations recently announced the winners of their 2014 contests.

On the state level (CNPA), the COURIER staff was honored for best page design (Kathryn Dunn), best sports photo and graphic illustration (Steven Felschundneff), and best website (staff). On the national level (NNA), Sarah Torribio was honored for obituary writing, Mellissa Martinez for her Lex in the City column, and Kathryn Dunn for best use of photography (design), and Steven Felschundneff for best feature photo.

Although contests should not be used as a gage for quality work, it’s always nice to be recognized by your peers. Our readers have spoken too as the COURIER readership continues to increase this year.

As always, all of us here at the COURIER appreciate the support of our many readers and advertisers.

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