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The Orange County Register is hiring dozens of reporters, focusing on print-first expansion

After being sold over the summer, the newspaper is hiring about 50 editorial staffers and adding new print sections — because print’s where the money is.

Why did the Orange County Register send reporters and photogs to cover 40 — yes, four-zero, 40 — high-school sporting events in one weekend?

No, it’s not another news mob. Nor is it a one-time thing. At a time when many newspaper companies are starting to think digital first, the Register is investing in print.

The paper has a renewed focus on high school sports — regularly covering dozens of games with a reporter and photographer at “every single one,” editor Ken Brusic told me. It’s part of a beefed up high school sports section, which is just one of the changes that came in the wake of the newspaper’s sale to the Boston-based investment group 2100 Trust over the summer.

“We’ve been sitting in this dark prison cell for so many years and someone has come and thrown open the door,”

The Orange County Register has also listed a slew of investigative reporting jobs, and introduced a new free-standing business section. All in all, the paper’s hiring about 50 editorial staffers to add to the 180 they already have.

“Think about a Starbucks model,” Brusic said. “If each day you went into Starbucks and plunked down $4 for a latte, and the cups got smaller and the content got weaker, chances are you’d stop going to Starbucks. That’s basically what newspapers have been doing as a way to deal with decreases in advertising revenue. The new guys are attempting to reverse that trend, and are attempting in a variety of different ways.”

The strategy includes hiking subscription prices — Brusic said he wasn’t sure on the exact numbers — and putting up a paywall, “probably before the end of the year.”

“In the meantime, we are moving as fast as we can to increase the quality of the print edition, because that really is where so much of the revenue comes from,” Brusic said. “The new owners have decided that the way they want to proceed with a business model is to really move from solely an advertising-based newspaper model to a subscriber-based one, and in order to accomplish that — basically, what we need if we’re going to charge more — is more quality in the newspaper.”

It’s striking that many of the changes at the Register are print-oriented. Brusic talked about new sections in terms of print pages: A one-page news explainer; an eight-page business section; a 12-page Saturday high-school sports section. New ownership eliminated the paper’s afternoon-edition iPad app The Peel. (“We simply are focusing on priorities right now, and The Peel wasn’t a priority,” Brusic said.) As for the website: Brusic says the plan is a split-site strategy to make the site for “quality content” and “more of a utility site for breaking news headlines that sends readers to the place where they’ll need to pay.” (Pieces of that strategy — a split into free and paid sites and a circulation price increase — are evocative of The Boston Globe’s plans. Aaron Kushner, who leads 2100 Trust, tried to buy the Globe from The New York Times Co. last year.)

Brusic emphasizes that improving print first doesn’t mean abandoning digital. It does, however, mean cutting back on “things that seem to be distracting the staff from the basic mission, which is to increase quality first in print.”

“The staff still files breaking news to the web, still understands the importance of mobile and digital, but we really have pulled back from chasing empty pageviews and are focusing really on — whether you’re dealing with print or digital — the core mission should be to build quality in content and build a core audience.”

For most American newspapers, the print product still produces around 80 percent of revenue. And while online advertising has generally been a disappointment for them, print circulation declines have slowed or plateaued at many papers. Few would bet on newsprint’s future 10 or 20 years out, but in the meantime, print remains the medium where newspapers hold their strongest competitive advantages. The balance that everyone’s trying to hit is how to make as much money from print as possible — for as long as possible — to pay for the digital transition, where the dollars are currently too small to support the business.

Some, as one might expect, are delighted by the foreign-seeming idea of a newspaper hiring reporters by the dozen in 2012. Here’s ex-Register editor Mark Katches, now editorial director of the Center for Investigative Reporting and California Watch:

But not everyone’s as thrilled about the de-emphasis of digital. Columnist Marla Jo Fisher posted this to her blog about bargain hunting:

As you may be aware, the Orange County Register was recently sold to new owners who are spending a great deal of time and money improving the quality of our print newspaper.

Already, they’ve added a daily business section, hired a new business editor, hired an award-winning fulltime restaurant reviewer and numerous other changes that are going to make our paper even better than it was before.

As a result, they have decided that most of us should devote our time to the print newspaper, and either reduce or eliminate the effort we are making to work on blogs like this one…Some of you may know that I’m already writing a Sunday deals column each Sunday for the local section of the Register. I will continue to write that. However, I will not be continuing to update this blog. (frowny face here)

The comments on that post give a good sampling of reader opinion:

— “Wow, what a forward-thinking company…Print is dead.”

— “Love getting quick and short updates online, but nothing beats sitting with a paper and a cup o’ joe in the am!”

— “I love the idea of paper, and I get the Sunday paper but that’s only for the coupons.”

— “We just recently cancelled the Register because of the price increase, so I enjoyed being able to view the deals on your blog.”

— “The new owners are idiots…Do they think anyone under 35 reads newspapers these days?”

— “Another nail in the coffin.”

— “I guess I have to start buying the newspaper. :)”

Brusic said the hiring spree and priority changes have been a little disorienting for the newsroom at times. “We’ve been sitting in this dark prison cell for so many years and someone has come and thrown open the door,” he said. “It’s a little confusing out there, and a little intimidating, but I think all of us are working very hard to make sure we make as few mistakes as possible in the hiring and the work we put together. When we consider the alternative — the continued expense controls and diminishment of staff and that effect on the community — this is a wonderful opportunity for us to be able to serve the community better, which is clearly the primary interest, but also to be able to provide a path for other papers.”

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  • Patrick Thornton

    If this is what this community wants, so be it. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach for local journalism, and certain areas — particularly those wealthier and older — may appreciate an increased focus on print.

    I do have to wonder, however,  what they’ll be spending on R&D. Online news is popular, and it is only become more popular with each passing day. The key is to figure out how to support great journalism online, but if you don’t take the time to figure out how to do so, you never will. One day you’ll wake up and realize that your future depends on supporting yourself with new generations of readers who don’t want print.

    Perhaps the strategy is to focus on what the local community will pay for today, and by the time Orange County is tired of print, other people will have shown the path forward online.

    I’ll be very curious to see if in a year this new strategy has resulted in more subscribers and more print ad revenue. I’m not convinced it will because there are larger forces at work here, especially with advertising. 

  • Marla Jo Fisher

    I would like to make it clear that I am greatly in favor of the changes, despite the fact that my blog is going away. I’m now the fulltime Life columnist for the paper and we are all excited to see what will happen with this experiment.

  • Lon Haenel

    Best of luck! Giving customers what they want is a smart move.  And delivering it how they want it is quickly becoming as important.  If your product becomes better and you charge more, that’s a sustainable thing.  Consumers don’t like getting less and paying more.

  • digidave

    I would echo Pat’s comments. In a place like the O.C. – maybe this could work. Whereas in San Francisco – I think something like this would be rather tough to pull off. We shall see – best o’ luck.

  • Jymn Parrett

    As if the the OCR had any credibility in the first place. It publishes Mark Steyn. Need I say more?

  • Jim Sunshine

    Finally, FINALLY, someone has recognized that you can’t make money in the newspaper business, or serve your readers and your community, by not publishing one. Gutting everything in the paper except the nameplate, cutting reporters and editors down to zip, and filling the pages that remain with canned entertainment has not saved newspapers from plunging circulation and declining advertising lineage. They have only brought the end nearer.  And giving away the news free on the web was another great idea that only a publisher could dream up.  It was tempting at the beginning to believe that the internet would relieve us of the bothersome printers and truck drivers and pesky staffers with their eternal wage demands, and that the news would report itself and edit itself while we kept all the money. Guess how far that has gotten us. Congratulations to the Orange County Register (always a first-rate paper) and good luck to Ken Brusic. 

    Jim Sunshine

  • Moe

    Blogs are a joke. Anyone can publish a blog. You don’t need training or education in journalism to write a blog. Kids do it everyday. In that sense I tend to give little credit to stories in blogs. Who knows if they fact check or just spew out whatever misinformation they have received.  As to internet news, I am not impressed by it either. The media today are cows. The just chew the cud they are fead and don’t ask hard questions. What happened to guys like Woodward. Men who would chase the FACTS of a story no matter who got in the way. Bring back print media. Maybe we will see some sense and balance in journalism again.

  • Warren

    Finally somebody’s getting it. The surest way to kill a business is to reduce the quality of the product. That’s what frightened newspaper owners have been doing for the last decade. The Orange County Record may not succeed in the long run – we all have to worry about the reading skills and interests of the next generation – but here’s hoping they do and that other publishers follow their lead.

  • Richard Gozinya

    “Hiring” dozens of reporters. Are any of these prep ninjas full-time employees? Not likely. The writers/photogs will prob earn 100 bucks each plus mileage. I feel sorry for the copy desk, having to wade through hundreds of poorly crafted game stories. … I’ve been there. I know.

  • Richard Gozinya

    Before everybody starts jacking each other off about how wonderful it is … the “reporters” are nothing but “stringers”. Good luck finding 40 prep hacks who can write cleanly and intelligently and possibly even make deadline.

  • Realist

    no chance. even with a large and engaged audience the cost of production and lack of advertiser support will kill this. earnest but doomed.  

  • Stillascribe

    And your financially feasible solution is? 
    Um, that’s what I suspected.Love the naysayers who love to put down efforts to do something positive to save newspapers but have absolutely zero to offer when it comes to concrete solutions. That’s why some people “have been there” instead of being “still there.”
    What’s that I smell? Oh yeah, the stench of  very sour grapes.

  • Joshua Benton

    Just to be clear, Richard, while I wouldn’t be surprised if the folks covering prep football included stringers, the 50 new editorial jobs are actual staff jobs, not stringing gigs.

  • Kelly Crandall

    The problem I have with online content is the sheer amount of it, which leads to mental clutter. I find online content great when I am actually looking for something in particular, but for browsing it’s just overwhelming. I like following clickable links to intriguing news articles, but I find most often that the links change on each click and my mind can’t remember which articles I had intended to read. The nice thing about the newspaper is that the articles stay in one place, and you can read one, go back to the front page, and the same articles are still there (unlike most online sites that give you variable content on each click). And you can declare yourself “finished” at some point, put down the paper and move on.

  • Patrick Thornton

    A lot of print reports and editors have no formal education in journalism either. It’s never been that way and one could argue the formalization of journalism and the ascendancy of a few journalism programs led to group think and a lack of innovation.

  • Steve Fryer

    We have a solid corps of four full-timers on high school sports. Great group of guys, some have been at this for decades. And a lot of other full-timers pitch in. Some of the part-timer have been covering high school athletics on a part-time basis for years. We do use a good amount of student types as stringers, just like we did when I first got to the OC Reg in the late ’70s. The hiring is indeed full-time people — copy editors, night editors, major-sports beat people. It’s a fun and interesting time for us. — Steve Fryer

  • Steve Fryer

    We have a solid corps of four full-timers on high school sports. Great group of guys, some have been at this for decades. And a lot of other full-timers pitch in. Some of the part-timer have been covering high school athletics on a part-time basis for years. We do use a good amount of student types as stringers, just like we did when I first got to the OC Reg in the late ’70s. The hiring is indeed full-time people — copy editors, night editors, major-sports beat people. It’s a fun and interesting time for us. 

  • Steve Fryer

     See my reply above. Thank you.

  • Barbara Selvin

    Delighted to read this. I’ve been arguing for years that the digital-first crowd is missing the point that the money still comes from print. Yes, print revenues are falling, but making a better print product might help slow that decline. And most papers are still making money, though less than in the past. I also agree with commenters who say that each community is different. Hoping for the best with this. Good luck, OCR.

  • Andrea Roberson

    A newspaper is a classic conduit and comfort for my generation (baby boomers) and I’m ecstatic the Register is going to re-invent this American journalistic staple!