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Business

Calif. newspaper’s new owner tries bucking trend

Mass. investor expands staff, print edition

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.

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Aaron Kushner added about 75 journalists and, with 25 more coming, will have expanded the newsroom by half since his investment group bought the paper 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 previous owners, Freedom Communications Inc.

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

‘‘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 .

Kushner said his lack of industry experience may be a plus because he hasn’t been through the tough times in newspapering. ‘‘We’re a little crazy in that we really do believe that we can grow this particular newspaper,’’ Kushner said.

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

Average daily circulation rose 5.3 percent as of Sept. 30 from a year ago to 285,088 on weekdays and 387,547 on Sundays, bucking an industry drop of 0.2 percent, according to the Alliance for Audited Media.

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

‘‘The value of the journalism isn’t any less. The reporter isn’t paid any less. The photographer isn’t paid any less,’’ he said.

Kushner, who has a master’s degree in organizational analysis, founded a business in the 1990s that allowed 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.

Kushner settled on Freedom and its 107-year-old flagship paper, the Register, for an undisclosed sum.

Kushner became Freedom’s chief executive and the Register’s publisher, working five days a week at the company’s Santa Ana headquarters and flying cross-country to his wife and three children in the Boston area.

Many executives stayed put, including the top editor, Ken Brusic.

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