Dusting Off the Dearthwatch as Kushner and Spitz Depart from Running the OC Register

Dearthwatch decline graphic

It’s been almost two years since this purgatorial blog unveiled the OC Register Dearthwatch, which sought to chronicle the effect of the newspaper’s paywall upon its online readership, and it’s been almost one year since our last installment, which marked the first anniversary of that event. Today, the architects of the paywall, Aaron Kushner and Eric Spitz, have jumped and/or been pushed from the Orange Lady’s owner, Freedom Communications. Their presumably somewhat unhappy big investor Rick Merman now adds the roles of CEO and President of Freedom Communications to his portfolio, which already includes being the Register’s publisher.

Kushner’s (I’ll refer to the pair by the name of the higher-profile figure) plan for Orange County was not, despite what you may hear, obviously absurd, but it was more socially corrosive than you may realize. And I’ll give them credit — if this was the plan, Orange County was probably the best place around to try to pull it off.

Essentially, the idea was to drop all pretense of populism.  This would not be a paper aimed at the penurious masses, but at the neo-feudal monied elites — of which Orange County has more than its share.  (Seriously, other places: take some of them away.)  So, subscription prices went up, newsstand prices went up, and online access — highly unusually at the time for a municipal (as opposed to a specialty, often financial) publication — was stanched with perhaps the most effective paywall in the business.  Making the Register a modest luxury item — not like a Mercedes, but about the same multiple of that versus your average sedan — and catering to the interests and attitudes of the upper class (which, at least on its editorial pages, the Register has always done) seemed like a pretty reasonable bet, except maybe for one thing: outside of the 91 Royal Road to Corona, how many people in Orange County drive the Toll Roads?

(We are a wealthy county, sure — but we’re also on the stingy side.)

Regardless of the business plan, the social plan of it was horrific.  Just as corruption supposedly flourishes in cities facing a newspaper strike — a rumored fact too good to check — it flourishes in a place where relatively few people read the paper and the paper doesn’t focus much attention on the “paper of record” responsibilities one would expect in a county the population of Iowa.  We’ve missed the “open access” Register a whole lot over the past two years — and of course the snafus with circulation and the purges of staff vibrating off of the ship to the sound of an enormous death rattle — hasn’t helped either.

Gutty little Orange Juice Blog cannot handle all of the big analytic picture by ourselves, but we can and did pick off a part of it: charting the paper’s loss of online influence.  Here’s where things stood a year ago:

Dearthwatch - 20140328

I’ll excerpt some of last year’s commentary below:

The Register ends Year One of its experiment at close to its overall low.  It started out as roughly the 6000th most popular website in the know universe; now it has dropped below 9500th place.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that the paywall was a bad business decision; it just means that other revenue growth would have had to compensate to make up for a stark (and predictable) decline in online readers.  Whether that happened or not is something that the Register presumably knows; I don’t.

What this chart does tell us, though, is a little about what explanations for the drop do and don’t make sense — and more than a little who probably profited from the Register‘s decision.

First of all, this was not an inevitable drop.  The Los Angeles Times has shown considerable improvement over the past year — and climbing from #546 to #420 probably means picking up a huge number of eyeballs.  The Register isn’t alone among “top 10,000” papers in showing this sort of decline — the Sacramento Bee has also suffered — but the relative success (recently undercut) of the San Diego Union-Tribune online seems to offer a good sense of where the Register might have been by now — perhaps near breaking into the top 5000.

Wherever the Register’s online readers went, it wasn’t to newspapers (other than the Times) outside of the county.  The flagship papers in Riverside, San Bernardino, the San Gabriel Valley, and Long Beach all showed declines.  Long Beach’s Press-Telegram may have been hurt by the Register’s competition there — almost half of its decline came this past quarter — and of course others have been linked to the Orange Lady in the financial gossip columns.

Much of that is still pretty much true.  The exceptions are interesting.  Here are today’s figures:

Dearthwatch - 20150310

The Register has dipped further, although earlier in the year it descended past 12,000th place.  What’s interesting is that, with the exception of Pedroza’s properties, everyone in Orange County has lost ground.  We political blogs — this one, IlliberalOC, and OCPolitical — have been the biggest victims.  The Pilot, the Independent, the Voice, and the Weekly have all taken hits.  This may suggest that those sites with less resources, who feed in part on the Register’s investigative leadership — which is what it is supposed to offer, after all — have been harmed by the simple reduction news worth following in the county.  That’s a harder “dearth” to quantify, but a more important one!

Side note: In our case, we’ve scaled down publication of new stories substantially over the past three months covered in that ranking, over the course of which is 75% of that drop, largely due to holidays and work and fatigue.  (Ever thought about writing for OJB?  Now’s a good time!)  Meanwhile, Pedrozaville has become temporarily readable of late thanks to Aaron Park use it as a staging ground for his massive bombardment of John Moorlach on behalf of Don Wagner, who he says (or was it implies?) is not paying him for the service, and whoever writes as Editor firing back at him.  It’s been fun of late, and will probably remain so for another week or so — longer if there is a runoff.

The main “big” papers that have slipped as well over the past year — the Los Angeles Times and the Sacramento Bee — have also been experimenting with paywalls over the past year.  Of other out-of-county papers, the Press-Telegram is essentially unchanged, the San Diego Union-Tribune (which I think has backed away from its own paywell over the last year, but I’m not sure) has gained serious ground, the San Gabriel Valley Tribune has done pretty well, the San Bernardino Sun has done a bit poorly, and the other Freedom Communications publication, the Riverside Press-Enterprise, has taken a bath.

A couple of sites we tracked are not on the chart.  The CunningBlog varied between 3.1 and 3.9 millionth place over the year prior to a year ago; it’s now around 3.55 millionth.  A Bubbling Cauldron, meanwhile, has dropped substantially — despite maintaining its good quality.

The takeaway: The San Diego Union-Tribune has pretty much swapped places with the Register in the race to be the second-most-popular online California newspaper website south or east of the LA Times.  General interest newspaper paywalls seem to have gone more out of style since the days where Kushner was the hope of the industry; if the Orange Lady’s paywall still exists in anything more than shadow form at all — right now, I can see all of the stories I want from tomorrow’s paper, but in text-only form, which is fine by me — it’s barely got a pulse.  The failure of the Register to bounce back (as, say, the Union-Tribune did) likely has far more to do with the devastation of the newspaper’s staff than with the paywall — but the possibility of lingering resentment over its ferocious imposition may remain.

People still don’t like the South County Toll Roads, after all.  Orange Countians like their freebies.  And we don’t like having our freebies taken away.

Kushner - Orange Glow, Static Eyes

What a short strange trip through Orange County’s media environment it’s been for Aaron Kushner.

About Greg Diamond

Somewhat verbose attorney, semi-retired due to disability, residing in northwest Brea. Occasionally runs for office against bad people who would otherwise go unopposed. Got 45% of the vote against Bob Huff for State Senate in 2012; Josh Newman then won the seat in 2016. In 2014 became the first attorney to challenge OCDA Tony Rackauckas since 2002; Todd Spitzer then won that seat in 2018. Every time he's run against some rotten incumbent, the *next* person to challenge them wins! He's OK with that. Corrupt party hacks hate him. He's OK with that too. He does advise some local campaigns informally and (so far) without compensation. (If that last bit changes, he will declare the interest.)