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Oct. 10, 2012, 10:03 a.m.
Business Models

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.”

POSTED     Oct. 10, 2012, 10:03 a.m.
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