Orange County Register

Freedom sold the Register’s 173,000-square-foot headquarters office for $27 million in September. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

By Chris Kirkham
March 10, 2015

When Aaron Kushner bought the Orange County Register and announced his plans to double down on print journalism, media experts asked: Could he save the newspaper industry?

On Tuesday, Kushner and his partner, Eric Spitz, resigned from executive duties at the paper and Freedom Communications Inc. Their bold expansions failed after sharp staff reductions, furloughs and closures of the Los Angeles and Long Beach papers they had launched with great fanfare. Now, several media experts say the financially strapped company is readying itself for a potential sale.

“I was rooting for him, but much in the way you’d be rooting for Captain Smith to succeed in saving the Titanic after it hit the iceberg,” media consultant Gordon Borrell said. “It appeared to be one poor decision after another.”

Kushner told The Times he still believes “that a solid future lies ahead for newspapers that are able to deliver great value to their subscribers and advertisers both in print and digitally.”

“That’s why we bought into the newspaper business three years ago and I have not changed my ownership interest,” he said in an email. He added that the company has upgraded its digital efforts with revamped websites and a new iPad application.

Even in an era when the struggles and uncertainty of the newspaper industry are widely known, the speed of Kushner’s rise and fall in Southern California took many outside experts by surprise.

“There’s no other story like this in the country,” said Ken Doctor, a news industry analyst and author of the blog Newsonomics. “There’s nothing where we’ve seen this level of change, commitment, pullback and financial woes in such a small period of time.”

As reporters gathered for Tuesday afternoon’s announcement at the Orange County Register in Santa Ana, Kushner stood mostly silent, according to several employees who asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing their jobs. Spitz urged staff members to pen thank-you notes to Kushner and to “think about” what they should be grateful for.

“We had no idea a resignation was coming today, though we knew it would happen fairly soon,” one employee told The Times.

Many staffers expressed concern about what lies ahead.

The resignations come after a tumultuous year in which the company launched a Los Angeles paper, only to close it five months later. The company sold the Orange County Register’s Santa Ana headquarters to a local developer in September for $27 million, and is leasing back the building.

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