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Summary:

I may disagree with them about the benefits of a hard paywall, or the wisdom of cutting 90 percent of the newspaper’s blogs, but at least the owners of the Orange County Register are putting their money where their mouths are.

In a post earlier today, I took a look at what the new owners of the Orange County Register have been doing to try and revive the newspaper, based on a long interview I had with co-owner Eric Spitz — a list that includes the hardest of all paywalls, killing off most of the paper’s blogs, and doubling down on print as a source of revenue. Even though I disagree with their approach in almost every case, Spitz and his partner Aaron Kushner deserve some credit for putting their money (a substantial amount of it) where their mouths are.

I confess I’ve been rather fascinated with the Register ever since Spitz and his partner Aaron Kushner acquired it last year and almost immediately started implementing some fairly dramatic changes. Unlike some newspaper owners, they didn’t just start cutting costs to try and save money — the way Advance Publications has with newspapers like the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, for example (media analyst Ken Doctor has called Kushner the “anti-Advance”).

Serve your readers — everything else is secondary

Instead, Kushner and Spitz started spending money on the newspaper, pouring tens of millions of dollars into the Register newsroom — which is now a staggering 50 percent larger than it used to be — hiring reporters and editors, and launching almost a dozen new sections.

money dollar bills benjamin franklin cash

However you look at it, that’s a substantial commitment to the principle Spitz and Kushner operate on, which is that serving subscribers is the only thing that matters — not advertisers, not free readers on the web, not the “social conversation” around their content. Just readers who pay. In a sense, it’s a more extreme version of the philosophy that led Andrew Sullivan to launch a subscription-based site with no advertising (although Sullivan, who will be at our paidContent Live conference on April 17, allows for casual web reading).

As a number of media observers — including me — have pointed out, if you are going to put up a paywall, your content had better be exceptionally good. Spitz says he and Kushner are trying to boost the value they are offering to readers by putting resources into the paper (although whether enough people see that value in the same way remains to be seen).

A strong commitment to a vision

If you think of the media industry’s approach to the web as a spectrum, the Daily Mail is at one end, with a totally web-native and non-paywalled strategy: like BuzzFeed or any number of other web properties, the Mail is going to live or die based on viral content, millions of readers and digital advertising. The Orange County Register is at the complete opposite end: no free content whatsoever, a hard paywall and no interest in viral content or social media (readers can always email Register writers if they have something to say, Spitz told me).

newspaper boxes

To be clear, I think the anti-social aspects of what the Register is doing are bad — not just for the newspaper, but for society as a whole, since discussion around news events has public value, and engaging with readers has journalistic value. And I’m not sure I buy the argument that print-advertising revenue will rebound and even grow if the Register puts more money into the paper. I think the advertising industry is being disrupted just like the media industry is, and I’m not convinced the genie will go back in the bottle quite so easily.

That said, however, at least the Register isn’t trying to suck and blow at the same time, the way so many other newspapers are. Spitz and Kushner aren’t trying a little bit of this and a little bit of that, and hoping that they can be both web-native and print-focused at the same time — they are unabashedly committed to their view, and they are pouring everything they have into it, and that deserves some respect.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock / Voronin76 and Flickr users 401K and George Kelly

  1. Yes.

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  2. Stephen Yang Tuesday, April 2, 2013

    Newspapers traditionally make revenue via subscribers and advertisers, so really you’re totally losing sight that advertisers are also customers.

    The dynamic is important because these groups of customers have intertwined views of value in a newspaper. Advertisers see value in the circulation that a newspaper has. The more readers, the more valuable that advertising space becomes. As circulation and readership drop, those same advertisers see less value in advertising with the newspaper.

    So what does a paywall actually do? Well, it reduces readership AND reduces their advertising value.

    The OCR doesn’t have the prize winning staff that the LA Times or NYT has. The OCR survives only because nobody else really covers the area. It exists simply because it’s a niche, and as that niche attracts other competitors (such as the Patch), the exclusivity that they had will go away, and they’ll have to compete with sources that are free, which will inevitably cause them to ditch the paywall or go bankrupt.

    They’re doing a great job of sucking and blowing at the same time after all.

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  3. I get what you’re saying re The Daily Mail comparison, but I don’t think that analogy works here (for a more elaborate explanation on this, see my post here: http://jaypinho.com/2013/04/01/are-online-paywalls-too-little-too-late/). The thing is, BuzzFeed and The Daily Mail can survive without paywalls for the following reasons:

    1) They don’t have real newsrooms — at least, not much of one. And thus, very few large expenses.

    2) This is partially because they borrow extensively from news organizations that DO employ tons of reporters at high costs, like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, etc.

    3) Their audiences know that they’re being cheaply entertained, and thus the idea of a Daily Mail or HuffPo or BuzzFeed being paywalled is out of the question. I have, at varying frequencies, been on all of these sites — and while I would dismiss out of hand the possibility of ever paying for HuffPo, BuzzFeed, or the Daily Mail, I already AM a subscriber both to The Dish AND the NYT.

    So watching real journalists and real news organizations, like the OC Register, experiment with some very risky endeavors is quite a different scenario from that of, say, the Daily Mail. They may have “figured out” something out about providing ad-supported online content for free, but it’s certainly not very applicable to real news. The entire idea behind these sites is that they provide mostly frivolous content to the masses (and I include myself in that). But when it comes to real news, we’ve already seen that non-paywall sites don’t make enough from ads to survive. This leaves the alternative of forcing people to pay for content, and the jury’s still very much out on that. Which is why so many people are watching Sullivan, the NYT, the OC Register, and others so intently: the stakes are impossibly high.

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  4. Here’s the only problem with this radical approach: it’s the Orange County Register, which has almost always sucked and almost always will. You forgot to mention Kushner’s discomfort in going after the comfortable, or the fact that half of his newsroom is in revolt, damn all the money and expansion…

    Gustavo Arellano
    Editor, OC Weekly

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    1. Samantha Dunn Wednesday, April 3, 2013

      Thanks for the “almost,” Gustavo!

      Samantha Dunn
      OC Register

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  5. RFO Jefferson Wednesday, April 3, 2013

    Readers want literate journalism–not unwashed-public bile, misspellings, and grammar as bad as the “reasoning” on display. Advertisers want quality eyeballs, not teeming masses with the attention span of a gnat. Goodbye to social? Good riddance. Hello to a focused readership who cares enough to pay for the privilege? An advertiser’s dream.

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    1. I not sure advertisers care about “quality eyeballs”. They just want to advertise to people with money to spend.

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  6. Terry Garrett Thursday, April 4, 2013

    God bless them for having a strong opinion and acting resolutely on it. That’s the same behavior that made alt-newsweeklies popular in the 80’s. There’s a good chance that they will attract and hold enough readers and advertisers to stay afloat. and maybe prosper.

    While the last-man-standing strategy is inadequate to embrace for the industry as a whole, it certainly has it’s merit in a singular case. And this is probably it.

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  7. Here’s your mistake. The content doesn’t need to be exceptionally good, it doesn’t need to win a Pulitzer prize each day. It just needs to be better than the free stuff and that’s easier and easier to do as the freetards go out of business. Then you just need to price it right and not get too expensive for the marketplace.

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  8. I have no desire for a print newspaper. I do like the ability to get local news occasionally and I went to the OC Register online for that. Even had the app on my iPad and iPhone. In my attempt to learn more about the rescue of the hiker in Trabuco Canyon, I discovered the Register’s new policy. Not willing to sign up for a free trial, I looked for the subscription cost. Not easy to come by! But a couple of emails later, discovered it is $37.80 for five weeks. Are you kidding me? Not worth it for my occasional need. Many other free sources are available. Deleted my iPad and iPhone apps.
    I don’t think you are going to win friends or influence many people with this new model.

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  9. As a longtime print journalist, I applaud the Register’s effort to create content worth paying for. But it’s an effort likely doomed to failure, mainly because advertising models have changed.

    Advertisers have never wanted to pay for readers. They wanted to pay for buyers. There’s a big difference. Evolving ad-server networks and smart technology increasingly ensure that advertisers reach qualified buyers at a fraction of a newspaper’s cost-per-buyer. Meanwhile, no matter how good the content, newspapers are still saddled with the truism attributed to merchant John Wanamaker: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”

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  10. I ould not admire them or what they are doing. They are cooking the books from the bottom to the top. I have undercover video footage of it. They are hiring illegals and using those that are down and out for free work. I have WONDERFUL audio and video footage of it all.

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