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updated 2:54 PM UTC, Jul 28, 2018

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Those concerned about Bezos' plans for Washington Post might look to Orange County

In the several weeks since Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos stunned the media world, and beyond, with his purchase of the fabled but flagging Washington Post for $250 million cash, I've been asked enough times by friends and business associates for my thoughts as a journalist that I decided to share them in a Flynn's Harp.


I might have been concerned by Bezos' purchase of the Post and the equally surprising, though on a lesser stage, purchase of the Boston Globe by Boston Red Sox owner John Henry, except for what has happened in Orange County with the purchase a year ago of the Register, the area's major daily newspaper.


The newspaper was purchased last July by Aaron Kushner, a 40 year old former CEO of a greeting card company, and his partners, including Eric Spitz, a top executive of companies in various industries, including a last pre-Register stop to help revive a classic brewing brand as CFO at Narragansett Brewing Co.


Inthe 13 months since then, the editorial staff has almost doubled, from 200 to 350, and the print newspaper is filled with news, and increasingly with ads.


While over the past year the Register's average print circulation has declined slightly to just under 160,000, the average weekly print circulation of Freedom's 26 weekly community newspapers, two of which have been converted to five-day operation, has nearly doubled to more than 180,000.


Kushner came in musing "why would anyone make some customers pay while others were getting the same thing for free?" So quickly came a pay wall for web visits and it's now a $1 a day for subscribers, whether they get their news online or in print.


And he and Spitz, who oversees daily operations at the Register as president of Orange County Register Communications, have filled the newspaper with editorial stuff, including the addition of 22 weekly sections, and it's become a place where most reporters in the country would happily take a job


After Bezos' and Henry's purchases I sent Kushner an email saying I had originally thought he was a media aberration, but now think of him and his partner as the leaders of a trend for the future of newspapers.


What's the trend? That people with significant financial resources and business acumen, and committed to public service and giving back, will decide that new ideas could revive an industry that was challenged but not comatose. After all, a lot of weekly and small-daily newspapers were doing quite well.


Will there be those who buy newspapers for the wrong reasons and abuse the power of the press? Perhaps. Maybe even in the mold of William Randolph Hearst who prided himself on deciding that the U.S. needed to go to war with Spain over Cuba and helped bring the war about with the editorial influence of his newspapers in major cities across the country. Who of the new breed could abuse their new-found power and influence more than the newspaper titans of the past?


But there are also positive "outsider" examples from the past, as with the two Kansas City entrepreneurs who, with no newspaper background, decided a local business newspaper was needed to create a more positive attitude about business. To their surprise, they found that their Kansas City Business Journal also was a profit center if they let the editors simply cover the business news honestly and without interference from them. So they opened business journals in a network of cities and created American City Business Journals.


Spitz, in a piece last week in the Wall Street Journal, closed with this: "Perhaps the industry's new leaders will have innovative ideas that will make it strong again, or maybe they'll discover that the business isn't as broken as everyone thinks and that readers are actually willing to pay for news that matters to their daily lives.


"I'd guess that we all got into this business for the same basic reason. We share a common belief that newspapers matter to our society and unite the communities we serve. Sometimes people buy companies because they want to do some good. Thomas Jefferson said 'an informed citizenry is at the heart of a dynamic democracy.' I think he was right."


The history of the Register, in fact, offers a profound irony for the apprehensions of the media establishment about what Bezos might have in mind for possibly bringing his viewpoint to the newspaper that covers, and presumably influences, Congress and presidents.


Santa Ana was the headquarters and the Register the flagship of a media chain named Freedom Newspapers, whose far-flung holdings were guided by the Hoiles Family, who sought to bring a libertarian viewpoint to the communities served by their newspapers.


As a young man working for United Press International, I had the opportunity in the early '70s to visit occasionally with Clarence Hoiles, the elderly publisher of what was then simply The Santa Ana Register and the overseer of the family's newspaper empire.


Clarence, one of the most gentlemanly, actually courtly, newspaper executives I dealt with, was the son of founder R C. Hoiles, who was once described by Time magazine as "the weird uncle Harold of the newspaper industry" for his views of how newspapers should operate, and seek to influence.


Both father and son wore on their sleeve the Libertarian philosophy that their newspapers were expected to evidence. That extended to the now-fabled requirement that when public schools were mentioned in the articles that were to appear in the newspapers, that phrase had to be changed to "government schools" (meaning they were tax supported) before the stories could be published in a Freedom newspaper.

Bezos has no such journalistic skeletons in the closet of the Washington Post so his actions will be viewed against the backdrop of a respected line of predecessors. But the key step that will be watched most closely should be his ability to return the Post to a path to profitability.

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