I love newspapers. I always have. I get three of them in my driveway every morning. And as outraged as I was when the OC Register let go a bunch of experienced journos with exceptional institutional knowledge of Orange County in January, it appears that between buyout offers and layoffs that the Register is losing another 75 journalists today. And I’m outraged all over again. I’m sorry to see a lot of good ones go, even voluntarily.
From Facebook posts and other sources, it sure looks like T.J. Simers and Keith Sharon are taking the package. OC Weekly has a partial list here. I’ve heard of others, but respect their privacy too much to say who. There are quite a few friends there I am outright praying for because they are good and they need their jobs.
From the Huffington Post, this well-done post by former Boston Phoenix Media writer Dan Kennedy really lays it out there: “Is it time to push the panic button? The estimable Ken Doctor, writing for the Nieman Journalism Lab, says yes, arguing that the latest round of cuts raise “new questions about its very viability in the year ahead.” Doctor may be right.
From the piece: “If you’re going to make an audacious bet on the future of newspapers, as Aaron Kushner did with the Orange County Register, then it stands to reason that you should have enough money in the bank to be able to wait and see how it plays out.
Kushner, unfortunately, is now slashing costs at his newspapers almost as quickly as he built them up. On Tuesday, Kushner announced that Register employees would be required to take unpaid two-week furloughs during June and July. Other cuts were announced as well. The most significant: buyouts for up to 100 employees; and one of Kushner’s startup dailies, the Long Beach Register, will more or less be folded into another, the Los Angeles Register.
Those cuts follow the elimination of some 70 jobs at the OC Register and the Press-Enterprise of Riverside in January — cuts that came not long after a year when Kushner’s papers, in a celebrated hiring spree, added 170 jobs.”
In Jaunary, the paper took out life insurance policies on its on staff. Michaelf Hilzik reported this in the LA Times: “Dead peasant insurance is an outgrowth of a more accepted, and acceptable, product known as “key person” insurance. That’s a policy a corporation might take out on a CEO or other top executive, on the reasoning that his or her sudden demise might have real economic consequences for the firm. Also, family-owned businesses often take out life insurance on family members to help cover the estate tax that might be levied upon their deaths.
Insuring members of the rank and file is another thing entirely. The practice emerged in the banking industry in the 1980s, when it was viewed as a way to help fund pension and deferred compensation plans. Adding to the charm, premiums for the policies were tax-deductible and the payoffs, when they came, were tax-exempt. By 2009, according to a survey by the Wall Street Journal, Bank of America held $17.3 billion in policies on its employees.
Other industries jumped into the pool. Companies such as Wal-Mart were identified in lawsuits as enthusiastic users. Some estimates today say millions of employees of major firms are covered by dead peasant policies. One law firm specializing in the field lists some 200 major corporations that have been identified as COLI owners.”
The launch of the Long Beach Register, now folded into the new Los Angeles Register, the expansion and reduction of the Irvine World News and other community weeklies from a 5-day a week paper back to a weekly show Kushner’s inexperience when it comes to running a newspaper group. Newspapers exist not as a platform for geographic advertising buys; they exist to be a community watchdog reporting on local government, crime and punishment, what’s happening at the schools, and how our local teams did whether its the Angels, CSUF baseball, CDM football or Northwood Little League.
It’s been suggested that Kushner’s house of cards may come tumbling down sooner than later.
I think people are better informed when they read newspapers compared to listening to radio news or talk shows, watching TV or reading blogs for that matter. But people won’t read or buy newspapers unless there is quality journalism behind it. I’m not saying the reporters and the editors of the Register don’t put out a quality paper — they do. But news isn’t driving Freedom’s management team…it’s advertising that is and it’s more about creating a regional ad platform than an investment in quality local journalism. Kushner’s promised this, but when a guy announces to the newsroom its not the paper’s job to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, that’s not a commitment to excellent journalism. There are many reporters I read regularly and others I wouldn’t waste time on at all. That’s true with every outpost in journalism.
The Register is still a libertarian/conservative paper at heart. The politics of the county is changing and its much more a purple county than a red one. The county changed and the Register’s political positions really haven’t. The occasional left wing pundit on its editorial page is still a far cry from any sense of “fair and balanced” that a great deal of Democrats, Progressives and Liberals no longer bother with the paper. Circulation is down and so are web sites which seem to reflect this development. I keep hearing from the younger reporters that things are really difference here now? From the conservative/libertarian leanings, no they aren’t. But in others ways, yes they are. I have to wonder how many of the paper’s younger reporters know about the paper’s last Pulitzer Prize story and what it was about.
There’s chatter on the blogs questioning whether the Voice of OC, which recently begin providing some content to the Register, would be influenced somehow by the Register’s moves. If anything, the Voice of OC benefits especially in the areas of investigative journalism with a smaller Register staff. A smaller staff means more opportunity for VOC to extend their own brand of journalism on a platform that is still larger than their own. And Norberto Santana has the sort of integrity and passion for journalism that dictates the sort of stories that VOC gets covered, not the Register’s masthead directing them to cover certain stories in certain ways. Any fears about VOC’s partnership with the Register are unfounded.
And the literal joy in Costa Mesa in the offices of OC Weekly over the Register’s troubles reminds me of the pot calling the kettle black. The OC Weekly was once a nice thick paper with lots of great content. It’s demonstrably thinner these days with a smaller staff. Sure, they have a nice web presence, but so does the OC Register. Popular features are gone, the paper only seems to care about Central Orange County, and it seems like its advertising section exists for vice only (booze, weed, and sex). For OC Weekly to take delight in the Register’s demise, you have to ask how long OC Weekly can stay afloat on an ad base of bars and tattoo parlors. The paper’s boxes aren’t exactly easy to find in South County. If the Boston Phoenix can go under, no alt-weekly is safe. Is it?
As we await the news of what’s to happen, we’ll watch and see how the Register transforms itself once again.