Register's 'Aaron Quixote' and his curious quest

aaron-quixote.jpgLongtime Orange County Register editor Chris Smith tries to make sense of the Aaron Kushner phenomenon that is making over the OC newspaper and giving hope to unemployed journalists across the LA area. Smith writes in the new issue of Orange Coast magazine, where editor Martin Smith sets up the piece this way in his editor's note:

"For those of us who care about the Register’s fate, buying into Kushner’s vision requires overlooking many questions about his background, his business plan, and the frenzied pace of change since his arrival last July. We hope he is what he says he is. We hope his ideas work. We hope the skeptics are wrong. So we wait, not sure if what we’re seeing is real, or a mirage. That so many of us have suspended disbelief speaks not only to the desperate state of the newspaper industry, but to our fervent wish for his success."

Here's an excerpt from the larger piece, which traces the Register's evolution from dying print newspaper, to web-obsessed, and now back to print-first under Kushner:

While printing a quality newspaper is largely a reflection of enterprise reporting, creating a successful website proved more akin to running a beauty contest. The goal was less about reporting the day’s events and explaining what they meant, and more about posting the news of the minute as quickly as possible to attract attention. Some traditional coverage—including real estate, crime, sports, and hyperlocal coverage of community news—met the new standards and survived. Topics such as higher education, religion, and ethnic communities largely vanished; in their place came a rise in coverage of lightweight and not necessarily local topics, such as video game companies, the fast-food industry, and consumer deals.

Perhaps the most notorious coverage at the Register was smirkingly referred to in-house as the “T&A beat.” Superficially, it seemed straightforward: cover Irvine-based Allergan, the company primarily known for Botox. In practice, the “In Your Face” blog was a nonstop cavalcade of speculation on which celebrities had had plastic surgery, with tsk-tsking about how good the work was or wasn’t. Headlines such as “Tara Reid Parties, Acts, Copes With Bad Breast Surgery” and “Golden Globes Plastic Surgery Preview” abounded. With its cleavage-filled slide shows, the beat consistently drew top page views. Where for more than three-quarters of a century the paper had been about appealing to readers in Orange County, it now was slavishly courting online viewers anywhere it could find them.

Meantime, home-delivery subscriptions fell to fewer than 270,000 by mid-2012....

Kushner opened the checkbook for [editor Ken] Brusic, who has aggressively expanded space in the paper and hired more than 75 journalists from all over the region. Notable among many talented reporters and editors, the paper is hiring nationally known film critic and columnist Michael Sragow, who has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times, and, most recently, The Baltimore Sun. He’s scheduled to start this month.

Kushner brings me back to the moment with a sweep of his hand that seems to encompass both the bulky piece of furniture in front of him and the entire enterprise. “No market, no institution is perfect, obviously. But on balance it was very quickly clear that the Register and Orange County were fabulous for what we want to do.”

More by Kevin Roderick:
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