Aaron Kushner and Eric Spitz — co-owners of the Orange County Register’s parent company and the engineers of an ambitious but failed experiment to bulk up the printed newspaper in a digital news era — have resigned from their executive positions at the paper and the company, the Register reported Tuesday.
Their resignations come after a roller coaster tenure that began in 2012 when an investment group led by Kushner and Spitz bought the newspaper and its parent company, Freedom Communications, and then went on a hiring spree, adding dozens of staffers to the newsroom.
From the beginning, their strategy was seen as counterintuitive. News consumers have for years increasingly looked to the web for the latest headlines. But Kushner, the face of the Register’s bold expansion, argued that potential newspaper customers weren’t reading the paper because it was too thin and they could get their news online for free.
Kushner sought to reverse that trend, making the newspaper thicker than in any time in recent memory and erecting a strict pay-wall on the Register’s news website. His company also purchased the Riverside Press-Enterprise and launched newspapers in Los Angeles and Long Beach.
The expansion plans were set in motion with remarkable speed, and the collapse happened just as fast.
The Los Angeles Register closed just five months after it started, and the Long Beach Register was shuttered soon after. The OC Register went through three rounds of layoffs or buyouts. A transition to a different newspaper delivery model went awry, leaving thousands of subscribers without their paper. And the Register’s previous delivery provider, the Los Angeles Times, sued over breach of contract.
Finally, the Register’s online pay-wall was demolished.
Meanwhile, questions about journalism ethics dogged the Register as Kushner and Spitz pursued unique business deals that would prop up flagging revenue, but also raised eyebrows.
In 2013, Voice of OC broke the story about Freedom Communications negotiating a deal with Anaheim to be that city’s corporate naming rights broker for a massive new transit hub. Media critics said it would make the Register look like an agent of the very government it’s supposed to be holding accountable with its journalism.
Earlier that year, Voice of OC revealed how the Register changed its advertising policy after two Anaheim councilwomen complained to Spitz about ads from a political activist that criticized their votes on a controversial hotel construction subsidy.
Also that year, 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. Critics questioned whether the deal amounted to a conflict of interest.
And late last year, Voice of OC chronicled how the newspaper’s editorial stance on Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido flip-flopped as it relied on Pulido to facilitate the sale of the Register’s headquarters and surrounding land.
The Register also published a glowing write-up of an award given by Pulido to Santa Ana real estate tycoon Michael Harrah, who bought the Register building two months later. When Harrah received the award at a City Council meeting last July, he and Spitz left the meeting together.