What the Orange County Register’s strategy experiment says about the industry

As head of business consulting at CCI Europe, I have been fortunate enough to work with leading media companies around the globe. And although the specifics of the media market may be very different from India to Germany to Brazil to Finland to the United States, the basic dynamics remain the same: 

Newspapers across the globe are faced with a massive digital transformation that is eroding print readership and transforming traditional business models.  

One CEO recently shared with me this thought during a private conversation: “Cost cutting and downsizing have become basic management skills. It’s something every competent newspaper manager has to be able to do on short notice. But what takes real skill and true leadership is creating growth by exploring uncharted business territories.”

But what is left to explore?

Over the past decade, print newspapers in the western markets pursued online opportunities to make up for lost print revenues. By 2013, after more than 15 years of exploration, online is no longer uncharted business territory. Most every newspaper has established an online presence, but not everyone has managed to turn online into a profitable business

What else can you do? 

Well, one California newspaper defies industry wisdom to stay alive – and prosper. 

In July, the Guardian, considered one of the most progressive and forward-thinking media brands in the world, brought us the story of a California newspaper that is truly embarking on a unique and daring venture: re-capturing print audiences. 

“Orange County Register shocked the crisis-stricken industry with an ambitious experiment,” the article reads. “One year later, the paper is celebrating.”

What was the experiment? 

An “ambitious expansion” of its business by doubling the newsroom staff, erecting a hard paywall to seal itself from the Internet, and adapting a “print-first” strategy. Well, actually a “subscribers-first” strategy:  

“We need to do right by our existing subscribers,” said new CEO Aaron Kushner. “To tell them that they are paying, but other people don't need to, is disrespectful. Either you believe your content is valuable and should be paid for, or you don’t.”

I would argue that there is nothing new about this. The Orange County Register is simply recognising it needs to keep relentless focus on its core business — the print newspaper. 

From the article:

The Register, founded in 1905, made a name for championing libertarian values before stumbling through ill-fated digital-led changes from the 1990s. Pagination shriveled and staff were laid off, said [Ken] Brusic, who has been editor since 2002.

It was an industry-wide response, and readers noticed, Brusic said.

“Imagine it’s your daily coffee. Each time you put down your money, the cup gets smaller and the brew gets weaker. That’s essentially what's happened to American 
newspapers. We took things away from people and at the same time gave content away free on the Web. How crazy is that? The industry committed a kind of institutional suicide over time.”

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to sit down with David Medzerian, a veteran newsroom manager at the Orange County Register, who talked about how the Register serves its community by providing quality journalism.

I have also had the opportunity to meet with Brusic several times over the past decade, so its “ambitious experiment” comes as no surprise (The Orange County Register is a long-time CCI client).  

Brusic has always been a true visionary. Now he is turning his visions into wisdom to turn business around. Recently he spoke at the ASNE annual convention in Washington about re-imagining possibilities.

“It’s working,” Brusic told the Guardian “We believe that this will work.”

It’s common sense, really.  

PS: According to the Guardian, The Register’s transformation is creating additional buzz because its owner, Freedom Communications, is about to launch a new newspaper, the Long Beach Register, and is circling the Los Angeles Times (another CCI client).

About Tor Bøe-Lillegraven

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