Orange County Business Journal

Kushner Tight-Lipped on Register’s Plans to Buck Industry Trend

Heidi Kulicke and Jerry Sullivan Monday, November 5, 2012

Most investors don’t plunk down hundreds of millions of dollars for a company in an industry that’s awash in troubling trends that are seen by most observers as permanent problems.

But that’s what Aaron Kushner and his Boston-based 2100 Trust did in July, when it struck a deal for the Orange County Register, six other daily newspapers and various other publications owned by Irvine-based Freedom Communications Inc.

Kushner won’t say what he paid for Freedom in the deal, which the Business Journal estimates at $200 million, with the Register accounting for about 75% of the price. He will acknowledge that it’s a contrarian play when it comes to daily newspapers in metro markets, a segment of the industry that has been in a steady decline that began in 2006, well before the recent recession.

“Certainly the margins will not be what they once were, and I don’t think we have a different view from anyone else on that,” Kushner said. “I do not believe that the industry is stable—a stable industry is one where revenue is flat.”

The Register is an exception, according to Kushner, and so is Orange County as a whole. He said the Register was “nicely profitable” and trending upward before its sale.

The industry as a whole continues to see revenue declines.

Estimates from mid-2011—gleaned from information made public when Freedom was in negotiations to sell the entire company—indicate the Register had an operating profit of about $20 million a year at the time.

Now Kushner is out to grow the Register, adding hires for sales and in the newsroom, where a rugged stretch that included a stint in bankruptcy had cut staff by about half.

Among the changes in the newsroom: more than 20 new hires, a business section that has been restored as a standalone, and various other regular features that have been added. Room for coverage of high school sports has increased dramatically, comics now run in color, and the opinion section has grown to three pages a day. An auto reviewer and restaurant critic have been hired, coverage of pro and college sports have been bolstered, and a movie critic is expected soon. A Sunday magazine for the Register is in the works, according to Kushner, and recent talks around OC points to the acquisition of other local publications.

Where’s the payoff?

Kushner talks in generalities, citing Orange County’s enviable demographics and diverse economy as fertile ground for circulation. That, he says, should lead to more ad sales.

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