Why I admire the OC Register, even though I disagree with almost everything they are doing

Newspaper paywall

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

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