- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 1, 2013

SANTA ANA, Calif. — New and expanded sections to cover business, automobiles and food. A nearly fivefold increase in community news pages and more investigative reporting. Even daily color comics.

It feels like a throwback to an earlier era at the Orange County Register, where a first-time newspaper owner is defying conventional wisdom by spending heavily to expand the printed edition and playing down digital formats.

Aaron Kushner added about 75 journalists and, with 25 more coming, will have expanded the newsroom by half since his investment group bought the nation’s 20th-largest newspaper by circulation in July.

Changes also include thicker pages, with triple the number of colors to produce razor-sharp photos and graphics. By the end of March, the newspaper will have 40 percent more space than under its previous owners, Freedom Communications Inc.

Mr. Kushner, 39, thinks people will pay for high-quality news. His bet is remarkable in an industry in which newspapers have shrunk their way to profits for years, slashing costs while seeking clicks on often-free websites to attract online advertising.

As more newspapers begin charging for online access, Mr. Kushner’s spending spree is drawing close attention.

“If he’s successful, it’s going to show the way for other papers to follow,” said Walter E. Hussman Jr., publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and an early advocate of charging readers for online access.

Seated behind his large, clutter-free desk near shelves stacked with newspapers, Mr. Kushner said his lack of industry experience may be a plus because he hasn’t been through the tough times in newspapering.

“So when we sit down and look at what’s possible, our view of the world is different,” he said. “We’re a little crazy in that we really do believe that we can grow this particular newspaper.”

It’s too early to know whether he’s right. The new owner said advertising revenues have grown, though he won’t say how much.

Average daily circulation as of Sept. 30 had risen 5.3 percent from a year earlier to 285,088 on weekdays and 387,547 on Sundays. That bucks an industry decline of 0.2 percent, according to the Alliance for Audited Media.

One key test will be when the Register begins charging for online access sometime before the end of March. Mr. Kushner said online readers will pay the same as readers of the print edition — a contrast to publications that charge online subscribers substantially less.

“If you have a wonderful restaurant and it costs $10 to come in the front door, I’ve never understood why it should cost anything less to come through a side door,” he said. “The value of the journalism isn’t any less. The reporter isn’t paid any less. The photographer isn’t paid any less.”

Mr. Kushner, a former Stanford University gymnast who has a master’s degree in organizational analysis, founded a business in the 1990s that enabled people to change their addresses online and later owned and managed a greeting-card company for seven years.

In 2010, he started an investors group, 2100 Trust LLC, to scout for newspapers, flirting with the Boston Globe and later with MaineToday Media Inc., publisher of the Portland Press Herald.

Tom Bell, president of the Portland Newspaper Guild, said Mr. Kushner presented the union with 50 demands, including a longer workweek and increases in employee health care contributions.

“We got off to such a bad start that it was hard to recover,” said Mr. Bell, who is skeptical that Mr. Kushner’s print bet will succeed.

Some Southern California readers and employees also question how much the new owners will stomach if growth stalls. Mr. Kushner insisted he is committed, saying the Register has a strong balance sheet and doesn’t answer to shareholders seeking quick returns.

“If you don’t have a clear, tangible way to grow revenue, you only have one alternative, and that’s to cut costs,” he said. “That path may well work. That’s not the path that we’re on here.”

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