As Aaron Kushner lays out plans for the Los Angeles Register, he’s hoping his upstart newspaper’s libertarian viewpoint can attract enough readers to carve out a place alongside the liberal Los Angeles Times.
Kushner’s firm, Freedom Communications of Santa Ana, announced last month that it will start the L.A. Register this year. He said the launch will come soon, though he wouldn’t say exactly when.
Kushner will be publisher of the paper and plans to use what he calls “a Register approach” to newspapering. That means a strategy focusing on local news coverage and opinion pages that carry a political perspective based on a belief in free markets.
“We will bring a very different political perspective than the L.A. Times in a civil, intellectual way,” Kushner told the Business Journal last week. “Having a strong alternative, from a political perspective, from the L.A. Times will be valuable for the community and hopefully well-received.”
The paper’s political perspective will be clear in its three daily pages of opinion pages, said Kushner. An editor said that the news reporting would come without an overt political bias.
The launch is the latest in a string of Kushner investments in newspapers. He has bucked convention by investing in print, first by buying the Orange County Register’s parent company, Freedom, in 2012. Then he launched an edition in Long Beach in August and then bought the Press-Enterprise in Riverside in November.
By moving onto the Times’ home turf, Kushner is making arguably his most ambitious move. He said that he has had the L.A. paper in mind since leading the purchase of Freedom.
Brian Calle, opinion editor at the Orange County Register, said competing with the Times and providing commentary from another viewpoint can only improve the political discourse in Los Angeles.
“Competition improves things,” he said. “I think it’s going to make us work harder to offer something very special. Even in environments where you have a dominant perspective, there are people who might like an alternative voice on the issues.”
Kushner, a former Boston greeting-card company executive, got into the newspaper business when he led the purchase of Freedom. He has kept the O.C. Register’s largely libertarian bent, which dates back to 1935, when R.C. Hoiles bought the paper and established its parent company.
The paper’s opinion pieces typically go for free markets and social liberties – its opinion pages have come out in favor of gay marriage. Still, Calle doesn’t call it libertarian.
“I don’t like labels and I don’t think Aaron likes labels,” he said. “I’m a free-market enthusiast. We’re a center-right editorial board and will continue to be.”
Now, he’s bringing that political viewpoint to Los Angeles, which, generally speaking, is more liberal than much of Orange County.
Calle and other staffers will begin to split time between Los Angeles and Orange County as the paper gets going. He said he signed up columnists for the O.C. Register’s opinion pages last year with a future L.A. publication in mind. They include Joel Kotkin, former Democratic state Sen. Gloria Romero and KABC-AM (790) morning show host John Phillips. He expects to add other opinion writers.
The paper’s plan is to wield influence by endorsing L.A. politicians and championing community-building issues in a way similar to the O.C. Register. For example, the paper advocated in November for the Irvine City Council to approve a plan to develop 688 acres of parkland at a former military base.
It’s not uncommon for large cities to have newspapers with decidedly different political perspectives, as is the case with the conservative Washington Times and the liberal Washington Post.
Papers in the Los Angeles News Group have at times taken a more conservative stance on some issues. However, they concentrate on specific areas such as the South Bay and the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys. Their circulation has fallen dramatically in the past decade.
Gabe Kahn, a professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, said newspaper opinion columns just aren’t the draw they used to be given how easy it is find all sorts of viewpoints online.
“That’s important when your readers only have access to a few different points of view,” he said. “(But) we’re in a time of infinite access to content.”
In another contrast to the Times, Kushner said the L.A. Register’s primary focus will be covering local news.
“They are a great national newspaper. We are a great local newspaper,” he said. “I think those are the two biggest initial distinctions – the political and the (local) focus.”
The O.C. Register now carries mostly local advertising, and Kushner said he wants to attract L.A. businesses for the new paper.
For its part, the Times said Southern California is its primary focus. No one at the Times would comment for this article, but the newspaper sent a statement.
“The L.A. Times’ first and foremost mission is serving Southern California, as we have for 132 years,” the Times’ statement said. “With one of the largest news-gathering operations in the country – and the majority of our editorial staff based in downtown Los Angeles – we continue to bring the world to California, and California to the world.”
For Kushner, local news gathering will come at substantial cost, though he said thus far funding for the L.A. Register has come from existing operations, and that he didn’t take on debt to launch the paper. Additional expenses will come from launching a series of smaller weekly community newspapers that will be bundled with the L.A. Register in certain communities.
He’s hoping to save money by drawing much of the L.A. Register’s staff from existing personnel in Orange County – as is the case with some of Calle’s opinion staff. Since Kushner took over, the O.C. Register’s newsroom staff has reportedly increased by about 200 people.
He’s planning to take advantage of other costs saving, too. For example, the O.C. Register already covers L.A. sports teams such as the Lakers – content that could also run in the L.A. Register.
The L.A. Register is looking to open one or two offices in Los Angeles, Kushner said, and will use the new Long Beach Register’s office at times.
But there are big questions as to how much financing Kushner has access to and whether the O.C. Register and privately held Freedom is turning a profit. Kushner has said that it is, but there are some skeptics.
“The entire daily newspaper industry is hoping for the O.C. Register to work, (but) a lot of people are saying it’s not working,” said Ken Doctor, a Bay Area news industry analyst. “The advertising market has been worse than they thought.”
Now, as Kushner tries to make it work in Los Angeles, he’s also going after a relative niche, Doctor said – people who are still signing up for new print subscriptions.
“You’re talking about print buyers, who are largely becoming a niche,” Doctor said. “Then you’re talking about a relative niche of people who are politically inclined to want a print newspaper with a libertarian viewpoint. Whether it’s going to work, there are too many factors to know.”
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