April 5, 2013

Orange County Register | Nieman Journalism Lab | Los Angeles Times | SoCal Connected

The launch on Tuesday of the Orange County Register’s online paywall is only the latest in a string of changes brought on by publisher and CEO Aaron Kushner. The business practices and philosophy he and Freedom Communications President Eric Spitz are bringing to the newsroom have garnered plenty of attention from the industry.

Most recently, Kushner and Spitz told readers the implementation of the paywall is proof “we are dedicated to ensuring the satisfaction of our loyal customers, and we understand how frustrating it can be to know that others are getting for free the same value you are paying for.”  Ken Doctor wrote about the move for Nieman Journalism Lab, noting that Spitz said there were “four things that are totally unique” about the way the Register is restricting access.

Those four things are charging the same for the print and digital subscription and not discounting the online product; matching limited print subscription with digital access (i.e. Sunday-only print subscriptions has Sunday-only digital subscriptions); allowing $2 day passes to online content; and allowing free access to content more than 90 days old.

Doctor said besides completely restricting access to staff-written stories while allow free reign for non-staff content, the most interesting aspect of the new paywall, however, is the membership program, because the paper struck a deal with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim to give readers access to free baseball tickets. He calls the move “touch of likely brilliance.”

It is a scale play — and one I’ve been looking for as I’ve heard about the various membership initiatives rolled out over the last two years. Further, it acts on the power of media. The Register, though shrunken in circulation like the rest of its metro brethren, still throws a lot of weight around town. It retains the power to pull off a big deal with the local baseball franchise — and one that comes at relatively low cost to the newspaper.

The paywall comes less than a week after an L.A. Times story pointed out the paper was creating weekly, six-page special sections for local universities UC Irvine, Cal State Fullerton and Chapman — provided they coughed up $275,000 apiece for a half-page advertisements in all 45 sections over the next year. The sections began on Monday, running on consecutive days, but staffers reportedly had reservations.

Some Register staffers have expressed concerns — most of them privately for fear of alienating their bosses — that the collaborative effort and the schools’ paid sponsorship of it will undermine the newspaper’s credibility and blur the line between advertising copy and news stories.

Kushner told the Times’ Kim Christensen, “We are explicit with advertisers that just because they are buying ads that does not give them veto rights or approval rights or control over content.”

Both Kushner and Spitz, neither of whom have a background in journalism, have proved to be ambitious with the Register since buying it last year. Kushner told KCET-TV’s Madeleine Brand on SoCal Connected last week that besides being on record as looking to purchase the Los Angeles Times, he sees the Register’s job as promoting the community, not tearing it down. Brand specifically cited a blog post by Jim Romenesko that Kushner told staffers he didn’t see the Register’s job as “afflicting the comfortable.”

I don’t believe as an institution that we help Orange County grow by afflicting anyone. I do believe that there is a really important role for investigative journalism, and we have made a really significant investment in hiring some of the best investigative journalists in the business … But our objective isn’t to hurt people. Our objective is to help and grow the community and our belief as an institution is one of the very important ways that we do that is by shining sunlight into places where it will help the community to see that.

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Joshua Gillin is a contributor to Poynter's MediaWire blog and a writer, editor and pop culture blogger for the Tampa Bay Times and its sister…
Joshua Gillin

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