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Ken Doctor: How interim is everything about the Orange County Register?

Lots of words come to mind to describe Aaron Kushner’s Orange County Register. The best one may be the title that’s been given to Kushner’s successor as CEO and publisher: interim.

Can we call the announcement of casino executive Rich Mirman as Kushner’s replacement a surprise? Hardly. That’s a word that’s gotten an exhaustive workout as the publishing world has parsed the high-velocity additions and subtractions, advances and retreats, pronouncements and head feints that Kushner and his second-in-charge Eric Spitz have issued in their two-plus years running the Register.

The boys do have a talent for the theatrical, and what could be more metaphorically apt than appointing a Las Vegas resident who built a career in the Nevada gambling (er, gaming) industry — though it must be said that both Kushner and Spitz seem more like riverboat gamblers than Vegas high-rollers.

Wednesday marked the triumphal (it’s become a self-parodying Kushner style) announcement and yet another newsroom “town hall.” The village keeps getting smaller as the newsroom shrinks, and you can imagine the tone of the meetings. Orwellian pronouncements of growth and success, a little decrying of the naysayers in the wider industry, and a golden path laid out ahead.

What we know: Rich Mirman, brought into the parent Freedom Corporation’s investment group by Spitz, takes on the role of interim publisher. He’s a seasoned marketer and business development guy, who neatly summed up Kushner’s tenure this way: “There were many things that worked and…things that hadn’t worked.” In addition to being an investor, Mirman has served as a consultant to Kushner and Spitz.

What we don’t know: exactly who pushed Aaron Kushner into new, semi-face-saving role as overseer of the editorial pages, the kind of move that usually happens to publishers toward the end of their careers. Kushner, by age 40, may be setting a land-speed record for entry, meteoric rise, embarrassing fall and exit from the newspaper industry. Don’t really expect him to spend much time further singing the praises of libertarianism (a position he tried to use to differentiate his L.A. Register from the L.A. Times). Rather, he’ll do what he’s best at doing: wheeling and dealing. Or, as the the Freedom announcement puts it: “Mirman’s appointment enables Kushner to focus his energy on Freedom’s broader expansion, and the development of new business opportunities and partnerships.”

Dance partners, though, may be tougher to find, given all the very public litigation.

The best bet: The investors, led by Silver Point, believe that moving Kushner to the back of the bus (if not under it) is a last chance to save their investment. It was that old devil circulation that finally did Kushner in. The owners knew that that the Los Angeles Times was about to file suit, finally convinced that Kushner wasn’t going to pay up for the Times’ delivery of the Register in Orange County. On Tuesday, the Times did so, calling for payment of the $2.4 million it says it’s owed plus damages. Add that litigation to every publisher’s worst nightmare: not delivering the morning papers to paying subscribers earlier this month, a story that made national news when the Register was forced to find an alternative to the Times for delivery.

The Times’ own story details what it says is a trail of broken promises to satisfy the obligation, which I noted last month. The Times suit is the fourth (“The newsonomics of life after newspapers go solo — and new intrigue in L.A.”) that has been filed against Kushner and the new Freedom, with only one settled.

Freedom’s backers may also want to make sure that that management undertake no new adventures like the creation of the L.A. Register. Los Angeles’ new paper was born in a dramatic December announcement. It launched in April (“Six things to consider about the new Los Angeles Register”), only to be closed in September.

The fact that Mirman was given the title of “interim publisher” mutes the high praise the Register’s own story lavished on him:

He founded The Mirman Group, a consulting firm that has worked on marketing and strategy with large consumer corporations.

Mirman, who currently lives in Las Vegas, is perhaps best known for his work at Harrah’s — now known as Caesars Entertainment Corp. — which he joined in 1998 and where he served as senior vice president of business development and chief marketing officer.

He led a team that created the casino company’s Total Rewards, a player-card program the company said played a key role in driving up customer loyalty and was considered a model for the gaming industry.

How much model-making can an interim guy be expected to do?

Though Kushner’s standard response to the lurches in strategy has been “we’re working our plan,” this appointment, like so many others, seems rushed. It’s a small effort to restore some kind of confidence to a wider business community (that would include the advertisers), to readers, and to staff.

One alternative intriguing theory: Kushner himself is pulling the strings here to reduce the heat on the enterprise. A third explanation is as likely: Aaron Kushner, Eric Spitz, and their business partners are making it up as they go, and “interim” just means more of “working the plan.”

If Mirman is indeed interim, what’ll come post-interim? On a cashflow basis, the enterprise continues to walk a thin line. It’s now sold off its headquarters building for cash (which we think went in part to lenders); five days ago, it re-listed its other Orange County real estate.

Mirman — who it should be noted, like Kushner and Spitz, has no newspaper or media business experience, and in addition hasn’t been an operating executive for a whole business — could be a bridge to the next CEO. I won’t use the word “permanent” as an adjective, for obvious reasons.

Or he could be a bridge to a sale of the Freedom properties, which now include the Riverside Press-Enterprise and acquired weeklies. The likelihood of a greater Southern California press landscape rollup continues to increase, both with Freedom’s latest move and the last month’s formal announcement that Digital First Media is selling all its properties, including the Los Angeles News Group.

The facts of a likely rollup, at some point, remain as I laid them out last month (“The newsonomics of auctioning off Digital First’s newspapers and California schemin’”). Timing, as is always the case in such complexity, is difficult to forecast.

Interim. It’s the word that best describes Aaron Kushner’s Freedom. His tenure only followed the uncertainty of bankruptcy and reorganization.

Interim is also a word that shouldn’t describe newspaper-based companies. You can’t build or maintain reader trust or advertiser confidence as an interim enterprise. Freedom’s damage — while higher-profile and lightning-quick — mirrors too much of the shorn newspaper industry, and that damage may be irreparable in communities, like Orange County, all over the country.

Photo of roulette wheel by John Wardell used under a Creative Commons license.

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