After expanding aggressively, Orange County Register joins other newspapers in cutting staff

LOS ANGELES, Calif. – Following an aggressive staff expansion that defied trends in the struggling newspaper industry, the publisher of the Orange County Register announced Thursday that he was changing the management team and cutting jobs.

In a memo to staff, Aaron Kushner said 32 jobs were cut. Among those leaving were longtime editor Ken Brusic and three of his top deputies.

Kushner and a business partner bought the paper’s parent company, Freedom Communications, in 2012. In a heavy bet on print, they increased page counts and quickly added editorial staff, nearly doubling the newsroom ranks from about 200 to 370 after the cuts.

Freedom Communications also launched a daily in Long Beach, purchased The Press-Enterprise of Riverside and announced plans to roll out another daily paper in Los Angeles.

Those counterintuitive plays in a business that has been losing advertising revenue and circulation gave Kushner a golden glow, even as skeptics doubted the former greeting card executive could sustain his expansionary plans. Then came signs Freedom was searching for cash — in December, for example, the company announced it would sell its five-story headquarters building in Santa Ana.

A new year’s reckoning came this week, with the cuts in Orange County coming a day after 39 people were laid off at The Press-Enterprise. It was the second round of cuts since the purchase last fall. The paper’s editor, Nels Jensen, also was replaced.

“As we finish our year, we take stock in all that we have accomplished. We evaluate what worked well and what did not. And then we prepare for making 2014 a year of profitable growth,” Kushner wrote to Orange County staff.

Outgoing editor Brusic, who joined the Orange County paper in 1989 and took the top editorial position in 2002, declined a request for comment.

Kushner announced that Brusic would be replaced by Rob Curley, the deputy editor who has overseen the local coverage that Kushner has said would help his papers add readership by engaging the communities they cover. Curley, who came to Orange County in 2012, previously worked at newspapers including the Las Vegas Sun and The Washington Post.

Among Curley’s newsroom leadership team is former business editor Donna Wares, who will become managing editor and lead the rollout of the Los Angeles Register. In a story posted on its website Thursday, the Orange County Register reported that the new daily would debut “in coming months.” Kushner also has expressed interest in purchasing the region’s largest paper, the Los Angeles Times.

Rick Edmonds of the Poynter Institute, a journalism foundation in St. Petersburg, Fla., said cuts at Freedom’s papers could have been predicted.

“We’re in a period now of a lot of experimentation” he said of the newspaper industry. “In an overall way I think that may be healthy, but bold experiments may fail or be a step back.”


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