Orange County Register: A year on and the gamble is working

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Last year California’s Orange County Register set in motion an ambitious expansion which continues to defy established news models.

Since August 2012, the daily, owned by Santa Ana-based Freedom Communications Inc, has doubled its newsroom workforce by recruiting a further 180 editorial staff to expand and improve local coverage.

In March, the paper announced it was prioritising print media over digital and introduced a hard paywall system to its website, charging an annual rate of $365 for a print and online subscription with no discount for digital-only access.

In an age of editorial staff cuts and a focus on multiplatform digital content, the OC Register’s unique approach has turned heads in the industry and seems to be succeeding against considerable odds.

In a region of 3m inhabitants in southern California, the Register currently circulates 160,000 copies daily on weekdays and 300,000 on Sunday, an increase on last year’s distribution figures.

Meanwhile the website has garnered 124,000 seven-day subscribers since the paywall was erected. The site also offers access to content for a 24-hour period at a rate of $2.

Instead of offering a 30-50 per cent discount for online access, as is the norm for newspapers, the Register’s strict paywall offers digital and print access throughout the week at one flat rate, with archive content remaining free to the public.

The Register was founded in 1905 and made its name in southern California by championing libertarian values before struggling with the shift into digital territory in the mid-2000s.

Last year, business partners Aaron Kushner and Eric Spitz took over at Freedom Communications and quickly embarked on plans to turn around the Register’s fortunes.

Eyebrows were raised when Kushner announced the paper’s substantial recruitment drive and straightforward $1-per-day fee across all print and digital platforms.

Initially written off by many as doomed to failure, the system seems instead to be thriving, helped by the Register’s overriding emphasis on producing high quality local and national journalism.

“We fundamentally don’t agree that a newspaper should be in the business of giving away its best new content to everyone who wants it, regardless of whether they are paying for it” Spitz argued last year.

“McDonald’s doesn’t give away its burgers for free, Boeing doesn’t give away airplanes – so why shouldn’t we do the same?”

The approach seems to be paying dividends. Kushner is known to refer to readers as ‘customers’ or ‘subscribers’, assessing the commercial value of everything the Register produces.

In July, he admitted to The Guardian that a similar model could not be replicated at a national level because the Register remains Orange County's only major press outlet and is aided by this lack of competition.

Where other newspapers offer members coupons, free ebooks and retail discounts, Register subscribers are rewarded with regular tickets to see the Los Angeles Angels baseball team and the opportunity to donate to a charity of their choice.

In December, every Register subscriber received a ‘golden envelope’ containing a cheque for $100, which they could donate to a chosen charity that could redeem it for free advertising in the paper. It cost the company $12.5m but drew considerable interest from customers.

The majority of Register readers consume it in print, bolstering advertising revenue. The paper encourages the county's 90,000 small businesses to fill its expanded pages with advertising.

While it remains to be seen whether the experiment will work in the long-term – the $15m addition to annual costs from staff recruitments must be a consideration – Kushner’s customer-focused vision has altered the face of the modern local press.  

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