It’s reasonable to have waited a year for the Register’s new ownership to rebuild their organization before offering an opinion on how they’re doing. And it’s important — really important — that this print dinosaur succeed in this mid-sized market as without them, the OC really would be void of a mainstream media outlet. The LA Times stopped taking Orange County seriously years ago, and for now they’re only concerned over who’s going to buy them (which won’t, unfortunately, be the Koch Brothers).
At least the Register seems more like a real newspaper now. They’ve got all the regular attributes — their display advertising is way up (they’ve been hiring plenty of sales types, and are still advertising heavily for them), and, anecdotally, the total number of pages is way up (70% they claimed here). The number of actual sections is up, and they’re proud of restoring the Business section to a normal size and regular distribution.
As a very long-time, full-time print subscriber to the Reg but overall, I can’t honestly say that I’m very impressed with the new Register or its management — especially since my subscription rate went up about 20-30% after Aaron Kushner took over. That’s always the best indicator, and IMO, I’m just not getting any more for my money.
Their ventures into electronic media have been tepid — even the Voice of OC beat them to OC’s only broadcast outlet with regular news segments on PBS SoCal (KOCE, Ch. 50). Kushner and Spitz are saying little about their profitability, but we’d guess the obvious success in cash flow from advertising covers any immediate concerns. We were able to learn that their circulation looked to be up a significant 27 percent for March, about 2/3rds of the LA Times’ totals.
Not that it was our business (but the advice was free), we even offered Kushner a few ideas on what to do with the acquisition a few months ago. But the big, big problem we’re having with what we’d hope would be a solid resurrection of a needed newspaper is the lack of increase, depth and timeliness in local reporting AND opinion. We read the print edition thoroughly every day, and expected this to be a high priority, but anecdotally, we’ve seen NO increase in stories or inches or pages compared to what we remember the Register producing just last year. In fact, we’ve especially noted the number of editorial pieces on local Orange County matters has significantly decreased.
As OC-focused bloggers, we believe we’ve offered more opinion on local issues than the Register has since Freedom Communications was acquired. When you add in our blog competition at the Liberal OC, OC(casional) Political and the unfortunately closed Friends for Fullerton’s Future, all these free efforts are running circles around the efforts of the Reg’s Opinion section in covering local controversies. As a further poke in the eye, for reasons unknown, Register Editor Ken Brusic and Opinon Editor Brian Calle apparently dumped our friend Steven Greenhut, the best editorialist that Orange County has ever had. Steve, once a long-time Register employee, is now writing for U-T San Diego and Reason Magazine. We haven’t seen a piece with Calle’s byline on it since the acquisition, and it’s rare that the two daily editorials in the print edition ever concentrate on a local topic, political issue or controversy.
Anyone who’s followed this closely would likely agree with us that the Register’s fallen well behind the all-digital union-funded, non-profit Voice of OC on local reporting, and especially on hard-core investigative journalism — the Register’s management should cringe at every revelation the VofOC’s excellent work has uncovered in local government scandals at, for example, OC County government, CalOptima and recently, the city of Anaheim. Even the OC Weekly does better work in this area, thanks exclusively to their own superstar reporter R. Scott Moxley. The new Register has had little to say of the recently announced FBI probe, the personnel scandals and cronyism high in County government, the waste of $493 million on Measure M money on redundant and unjustified mass transit projects, the theft of the Great Park from OC and federal taxpayers and OC Supervisor Janet Nguyen’s fiddling in a variety of issues. We do remain fans of OC Watchdog reporters Teri Sforza and Tony Saavedra, but we also wonder why their output seems to be diminishing — they just don’t seem to be setting the fires they once did and we wonder what’s changed.
In expanding the new product, Kushner and Spitz bought the OC Metro magazine, and then added other glossy publications into the weekly distribution. We see them as just added advertising — lots of it — and there’s little news or editorial value. A recent OC Metro was entirely a buyers guide for local attorneys, and last week’s only OC article is a puff piece for environmentalists. We do expect the Reg’s added sports product, especially at the “varsity” level, is appealing to many. Other promotions left us a little cold — particularly, the FREE Angels tickets were easy to obtain, but the hefty service fee that was required to retrieve them was more than tacky.
We don’t have a pertinent comment about the Paywall other than it appears to be financially necessary (it has NOT worked for the SF Chronicle), but we also wonder how the Register’s writers and reporters feel about their work being inaccessible to other media outlets and journalists doing research (or looking to poach staff). Perhaps there’s a way around that, but it would seem to diminish the brand and be anti-promotional if non-subscribers can’t reuse the product with proper attribution. We expect Freedom’s interest in webifiying their publications to be unenthusiastic (especially per this WSJ piece by Eric Spitz). In fact, last Monday’s launch of the Long Beach Register came before it had its own website — http://lbregister.com redirected to an OCR webpage saying they won’t launch their LBR site until next month. Unbelievably, Freedom neglected to register http://longbeachregister.com, but their competition did as it routes to the Long Beach Press-Telegram site. AVOIDING the web seem to be part of the strategy as Co-Owner Spitz recently explained to the Los Angeles Time$: O.C. Register owner Aaron Kushner bets heavily on print.
Politically, it’s still too soon to tell if the Register is still dedicated to Founder R. C. Hoiles’ libertarian philosophies. And since there’s been no election since the takeover, we don’t know if the new management will continue to endorse, or not, office seekers and ballot initiatives — the ‘old’ Register took years before deciding to do that and use its influence to favor one politician over another. We hope that continues, if only to take their inventory and see if they’re staying on a libertarian, limited government course.
After a year of loyally paying my ~$300 annual seven-day subscription, it just comes down to a level of disappointment that Kushner and Spitz might have done better. When asked, they discuss the number of new employees taken on, and the expansion of the paper by adding sections including the collegiate ones that seem to have been paid for by their institutions per this VofOC piece:
…in March, the Los Angeles Times revealed that the Register struck a deal whereby UC Irvine, Cal State Fullerton and Chapman University would each pay the Register $275,000 per year for the newspaper to publish weekly news sections focused on positive happenings at the colleges. That arrangement calls for UCI’s public relations department to be “content advisors, idea generators and collaborators” on the sections, according to an internal UC Irvine memo cited by the Times. The Register’s top editor has said the university arrangement wouldn’t affect the newspaper’s news coverage.
There’s potentially two major problems with this. It’s a very questionable use of taxpayers funds by CSUF and UCI given all that’s been reported about skyrocketing tuitions, bloated staffs and the fantastic salaries, housing and benefits enjoyed by UC administrators. Second, UCI has an especially scandalous record of unethical behavior, particularly in the medical arena. Google it. In no way do we believe an organization of that size, arrogance, wealth and political power can be objective and fair in discussing itself — and neither do we believe the Reg is going to dig very deep into a significant revenue source the next time a UCI Doctor starts a side business marketing body parts.
We were only going to give the new Register a “C” until this story on the OC Register Set to Be Anaheim’s Sponsorship Broker broke mid-month on Voice of OC. Real newspapers don’t do this. It’s more than INAPPROPRIATE that the Register to be in bed with one of the largest cities in the OC that’s so much in the news. Compared to the VofOC and the good local Blogs, to their discredit, the Register’s had little to say about Anaheim’s issues, especially the racial divisions, the corrupt City Council giveaways to local developers and nearly one half billion dollars of Measure M tax money on unnecessary and redundant transportation projects (that includes ARTIC). Deservedly, the Register took some heat over all this from the (likely liberal) Columbia Journalism Review: The OC Register’s transportation snarl. Just as well put was a Facebook comment from our friend Cynthia Ward (which also speaks to our comments re. the Watchdog reporters above):
Ordinarily the Register’s Watchdog column would be all over this kind of spending, but it turns out their new owners are discussing a deal with certain Anaheim Council members to get exclusive rights to resell their own clients on the naming rights for the ARTIC train station (another nearly $200 million for a train station that is more likely to see Santa’s sleigh deliver passengers than the bullet train), because apparently Freedom Communications are now marketing consultants or some such thing…anyone else notice a decided lack of negative reporting from the Register on Anaheim’s massive spending festival to benefit the well connected friends of Curt Pringle? Yeah, you don’t want to piss off the folks you are negotiating a deal with, do you? (The Register even changed their paid ad policies to keep the political enemies of the Council members from buying ads to tell readers about the voting records and spending habits of Anaheim Council members, after they complained DURING a meeting to discuss the sponsorship deal) So much cronyism tied to this stupid HSR project!”
We don’t believe the Register has the ability to maintain an impenetrable firewall between its reporters/journalists/editorialists who would be honestly and factually discussing local issues AND the sales/marketeers/revenuers who would exploit them. Two non-journalists like Kushner and Spitz will likely have trouble understanding this, and enforcing it even though they it’s ethically necessary. Crossing the line is too tempting. The previous owners of Freedom Communications would have never stood for it, and until the new owners drop this awful strategy of combining “marketing muscle” and “brokering” with what their subscribers expect of a newspaper, they’ll be lacking what they should strategically covet and be most trusted to provide: credibility.