Michael Woo, Sandy Banks, Aaron Kushner and Joe Mathews discuss LA newspapers. Zocalo/Aaron Salcido.
Aaron Kushner was charming, comfortable and confident at Monday night's Zocalo panel on the future of LA newspapers, and he stayed around to schmooze along with several of the editors and writers for his forthcoming new LA Register. All good things. But if you want to know how his paper will be different enough to make a splash in the Los Angeles market, you have to wait until it launches on April 16. Kushner was giving no details beyond his usual talking points that the Register will have a different news and political slant than the LA Times and that community building is one of the goals. Will LA news consumers be able to see the Register on the web without subscribing? Won't say. Where will the Register's LA offices be? Too soon to say, I was told. (It seems they are looking closely at the Petroleum Building, a Meyer and Holler-designed classic from 1925 on Olympic near Flower in the South Park section of downtown.) Will there be a community paper in the Valley? Company secret.
Kushner was cordial when we chatted briefly after the panel, but I detected some bristling from the Register editors in the house — they feel I've been too skeptical about the Freedom Communications expansion in LA. I don't know. They had to pick up on the prevailing sense in the room, which pretty much summarizes my take on the whole thing so far. It felt like everyone there was a news junkie or an actual journalist, and everyone I spoke with hopes Kushner is right about the future of print newspapers. They hope his bet on staffing up and making web readers subscribe is the right bet, and they eagerly await the appearance of a new paper on the streets of LA, if just for journalistic diversity. But I found no one who is confident that Kushner will succeed here or in Orange County, or who has high expectations journalistically for the new LA Register. Skepticism ruled.
All the same, most of the journalists (current and ex) I talked with agreed that managing editor Donna Wares, LA editor Ron Sylvester and veteran reporters such as David Ferrell — who were all there Monday night — are having the most fun of their careers. Or will be, if they aren't feeling it yet. They work at the only major newspaper in America that has been growing, and now they get to start a new daily in a news town like Los Angeles. In a year or so we'll know whether it's a keeper — for his part, Kushner insisted he's in for the long haul.
Here's how Zocalo's Sarah Rothbard saw it:
This isn’t a bet, said Kushner, but a no-nonsense approach to business: “If we give our customers more, in return, they will give us more.” That means, he said, the paper is committed to giving back not just to subscribers and advertisers, but to the community as a whole—through coverage, through business, and through advertising. One example of “community-building,” said Kushner was a “golden envelope” program, where the Register gave subscribers a $50 check to sign over to the nonprofit of their choice....
Given that Los Angeles newspapers have retreated from some of their ambitions, [moderator Joe] Mathews asked: If you had all the money in the world, what would you put in the newspaper?
Kushner said that the short answer to that question—and the question of what kind of newspaper a city deserves—is simple: “What kind of newspaper do the residents of a city support by subscribing and support by advertising?” He said that the biggest challenge of running the Register “is apathy.” People assume the newspaper will be around whether or not they support it—which simply isn’t true.
In the audience question-and-answer session, the panelists were asked about balancing big-picture coverage of the entire city and region with smaller community coverage.
Kushner said that the Register believes in both kinds of reporting, and publishes over 20 local newspapers throughout Orange County that feed into the larger Orange County Register for that reason. “The whole,” he said, “is made up of its parts.”
LA Times columnist Sandy Banks and former City Councilman and mayoral candidate Michael Woo also gave their takes on the state of newspapers in Los Angeles. Interesting from Woo: "Woo said that the Los Angeles Times is no longer serving the civic role it played in the late 20th century. A newspaper, he said, is more than a business: 'It’s a civic institution that builds a city’s sense of itself.'"
The whole thing is on video: