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April 16, 2014, 8:56 p.m.
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Six things to consider about the new Los Angeles Register

The first edition of the Orange County Register’s expansion into the Times’ turf is hot off the presses. Is this about selling papers or positioning for a further shakeout of the newspaper market?

The last time a daily paper launched in L.A. was back in the Carter administration. The Valley Green Sheet, a green newsprinted shopper that would get thrown on my doorstep a few times a week, morphed into a daily between 1976 and 1980, becoming the Los Angeles Daily News, now a part of Digital First Media’s Los Angeles Newspaper Group. Many newspapers have come and gone in L.A.’s history, but today the city is abuzz with Aaron Kushner and Eric Spitz’s new show. The back-to-the-future headline, after its fall announcement: PRINT NEWSPAPER DEBUTS TODAY (“The newsonomics of the Orange County Register’s new, newer, newest strategy”). It costs $1.50 a day or $2 on Sunday and is available at 5,500 convenience and grocery stories; no home delivery yet, but it could be in place by May.

If the Register were a football team, Coach Kushner’s strategy would clearly be to flood the zone. That’s what all the moves — from Orange County to Long Beach to Riverside and now L.A. — tell us.

Let’s consider six things about the new Los Angeles Register.

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1. It’s far more fun being the insurgent than the incumbent.

It’s a pirate move, and it’s pure Kushner, going big and bold and loud back into the marketplace. Newspapers have sometimes seemed almost agoraphobic in the wake of digital disruption. The Register wants to put itself in the center of a marketplace.

2. If you’re the pirate, paint your own picture of the competition.

Kushner has gotten his reasons to take on the Los Angeles Times down to two sentences: “We are very much pro-business, right of center. The L.A. Times sits on the other side.” He is painting the Times as a lumbering lefty paper, more interested in the world outside L.A. — “The L.A. Times is a wonderful national newspaper” — than in being a local news medium. Of course, the Times has been a great newspaper in part by knowing that its longtime readers care about the wider world. And, like all ambitious metros, it’s turned itself in pretzels trying to figure how to do that and still be local too. If you’re the insurgent, though, you don’t care about the nuance — you just paint the portrait. Kushner’s adoption of the libertarian mantle is a curious one. The Hoiles family, long-time owners and builders of the O.C. Register, were among the leading libertarian voices of their times. Kushner, though, didn’t make much of a point of his politics in the early O.C. Register expansion. In L.A., it seems, it makes a good talking point.

3. How local is local?

Los Angeles County includes 88 city jurisdictions. It is a famously balkanized place; grow up west or east, and you might never set foot in the opposite end of the sprawling city in an entire lifetime. In that regard, it’s even less a singular place than Orange County, itself diverse. There, the new Kushner-Spitz Register came out brawling, promising local above all else. Handsome, new colorful sections rolled off the presses, and a near-doubling of newsroom staff filled their pages — fulfilling that promise to a great extent.

Then, as the Register assessed its finances and its expansionist desires, those new sections were significantly scaled back (and some staff laid off). In L.A., the new Register, with an unstated press run, will be a single edition. So, yes, it’s local — as local as one edition can be for the entire county. Then there will be monthly community sections. How local will L.A. Register readers find the new paper? Today’s first Local section is an uncertain metro assemblage, fronted by Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s picks of his favorite movies about L.A. and an interview with restauranteur Wolfgang Puck.

4. It’s a consolidation play.

DFM’s Thunderdome may be closing its doors, but the trend toward centralizing content production and editing is a fundamental feature of the L.A. Register launch. Its sports section can share the Dodgers, Angels, Clippers, Kings, and college coverage across the board, maximizing the investment in beat reporters and columnists. Ditto for features, business, and nation/world. Then the central creation hub — working itself to the bone, I hear — puts all the pieces together. Residents of Santa Ana may get different local sports than Santa Monica, but on the whole, there’s great cost savings in producing multiple print editions. Tribune and Gannett, among others, are doing the same thing, but at newspapers in different cities; the Register is doing it across the L.A. area. In addition, the L.A. Register reporting staff isn’t new; they’re O.C. staffers now working out of mobile offices in L.A. So, overall, the high-profile invasion is smartly built on a lower-cost strategy.

5. It’s more a print play than a digital one.

Register president Eric Spitz is quite outspoken about what he considers the industry’s abdication from newsprint. He’s also deeply skeptical that newspaper companies can grab much of the now-$40-billion-plus U.S. digital ad business — given the economies of scale that Google, Facebook, and others have amassed. So that means the L.A. Register play is mainly print, scrapping for a still-substantial — if still declining annually, somewhere in the high single digits — share of print ad spend in the nation’s second-largest market. (Today’s e-edition is chockful of ads, many O.C.-based and at low rates, we’d presume.) LosAngelesRegister.com will be a hard-paywalled site, like its OCRegister.com parent, though it should be noted that the O.C. site is significantly more porous than it used to be. Kushner denies a change in paywall strategy, but it seems like a more metered approach is being tried. L.A. Register debut pricing is the same kind of one-price-for-print-and-digital deal as in Orange County, starting in L.A. at $20 every four weeks. Don’t expect much in the way of digital subscriptions.

6. It’s as much about staking out turf as selling newspapers.

I don’t expect the L.A. Register to sell more than low five digits of new papers for a while. Kushner talks about a 10-year plan — but seriously, how many humans are going to be buying daily print newspapers in 2024? This move is calculated to produce a lot of buzz and some incremental sales.

In the last generation’s newspaper wars (Newsday’s move into New York, the Twin Cities, Dallas vs. Fort Worth), insurgent papers moving into the other guy’s turf were priced at 25 cents or so. The L.A. Register is six times that price, but at that level, the Register makes some money on every copy sold — and it can then extend its ad rate base for its windows/shutters/carpets medium-sized retailers. More importantly, in the still volatile L.A. newspaper landscape, the L.A. move aims to position Freedom Communications one of the last two last print survivors in the Southland.

How big a market are we talking about? Fifteen million people live in the L.A., Orange, and Riverside counties; Freedom bought the Riverside Press-Enterprise just last fall. Yes, print advertising is in decline — but if you can be one of the last two big print publishers in that big a market, there’s a lot of business. Finally, who knows what comes next in the L.A. Times saga? The spinoff (“The newsonomics of the print orphanage, Tribune’s and Time Inc.’s”) of the Times will come soon, and its future ownership and direction remain unclear. Aaron Kushner, ever aggressive, says he still wants to buy the Times, if not all of Tribune. Many will scoff: “Where is he going to get the money?” Yet, deploying the L.A. Register, modest as its sales may be, may convince financiers that a combined Times/Register could be a horse worth backing.

POSTED     April 16, 2014, 8:56 p.m.
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