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In Santa Ana, Calif., an almost unbelievable thing is happening: A daily newspaper is hiring. In fact, you might even say a daily newspaper is transforming.

The Orange County Register — flagship paper of Freedom Communications, the recently purchased parent company of the Gazette — seeks to add more than 20 people to its newsroom: reporters; sports, copy and business editors; columnists; restaurant, movie and auto critics; a beat writer for the Dodgers, even. These are on top of open positions in sales, distribution, art, analytics and print operations.

And these past few days have brought a whiff of such expansion to the Gazette. On Aug. 29, the newspaper posted job opportunities for a Broncos and Rockies columnist, a prep-sports reporter, an investigative reporter and a religion-focused journalist. Only one of those postings pre-dates the June purchase of Freedom by Boston entrepreneur Aaron Kushner.

And although the 39-year-old has yet to publicly quash rumors that his team may sell the Gazette, he did last week install his longtime business partner as its president and publisher. Like Kushner, Daniel J. Steever, 53, has no experience working for a journalism-focused company. Also like Kushner, he's of the Boston area, with limited, if any, history in the Pikes Peak region.

Still, last week's Gazette story announcing his selection made Steever sound like he's in for the long haul: He reportedly will move, with his family, to Colorado Springs in the next few months. And if Steever's giving marching orders like those coming down on the West Coast, you might actually see a better daily newspaper here — as long as you're willing to have it tossed into your driveway.

Ink-stained vs. Internet

"The path to ... success is clear to [Kushner]: Focus on subscribers," says an Aug. 3 report from the Register. "Give them more pages, more in-depth reporting, more rich storytelling and more news they can't get anywhere else and they will come. And, more importantly, he thinks they will pay for it."

To clarify: Kushner's talking about print subscribers.

Today, the Gazette's physical incarnation isn't exactly its strong point. March 31 data from the Audit Bureau of Circulations, the most recent available, show paid print home-delivery and single-copy circulation at under 49,000 for Monday through Saturday, down from about 106,000 in 1996. At the same time, the population of El Paso County has increased by 159,000, to 637,000. In terms of readership, 134,000 people read the Gazette during the week.

Those diehards have been reading a smaller paper. Often, 22 total pages — including maybe five pages, combined, of local news and sports — comprise the editorial sections in early-week editions, with decreased ad sales limiting editorial space, and fewer local reporters generating stories.

Like many media outlets, the Gazette has long sought to offset print troubles with a digital-first strategy. As recently as April 3, the paper hired social-media personality and former TV reporter Barrett Tryon "to bring that sense of urgency," he says, found in TV broadcasts. He and the website soon debuted a much-touted GTV video feature.

But since Kushner's taken over, GTV has vanished, and Tryon himself has left under unique circumstances. Shortly after the purchase, he posted to his personal Facebook page a Los Angeles Times story saying the Gazette could be sold again before summer's end. He was subsequently suspended. "This does not meet our standards of factual information," wrote content director Carmen Boles in an e-mail to Tryon at the time. Freedom later offered to reinstate Tryon; he declined.

At least three other digital-focused employees have left. Blogs have quieted, as have Twitter accounts of normally prolific reporters like Daniel Chacón and Lance Benzel. Meanwhile, the Gazette has also withheld Sunday feature stories from gazette.com, sometimes for hours, sometimes (apparently) for good.

We couldn't get more information on the changes; along with Steever, former Gazette interim publisher Gene Carr, arts editor Tracy Mobley-Martinez and Boles, Kushner declined Independent requests for an interview. As Freedom spokesman Eric Morgan wrote via e-mail, "There's not much appetite to discuss big-picture strategy or future developments until after they're announced and underway."

But, like the added newsroom positions, some of the new moves fall in line with what Register readers are experiencing. For example, the OC Weekly reported Aug. 20 that the Register will kill all its blogs, save one sports-related one, and that any focus on mobile readership will disappear. Similarities in mind, it may be noteworthy that Kushner's said a paywall will soon be installed at the Register.

No gnosis

If all this aligns with a larger philosophy, that philosophy is something of an industry first, says Michael Meyer, a staff writer for the Columbia Journalism Review. "If they're not emphasizing the website much," he says, "it's more a retrenching into the previous newspaper business model in an attempt to sustain that previous business model, than it is an attempt to monetize newspapers in the digital age. ... It's interesting, because not many newspapers have the goal, these days, of increasing print circulation."

Print was never a cheap road to begin with — especially here, notes Meyer, himself a Colorado College graduate.

"Colorado Springs is a huge area to deliver newspapers to," he says. "So you've got presses, and then loading [papers] on the trucks, and driving them all over the city; it's not the easiest way to make money, to increase your circulation.

"But, at the same time, maybe they kind of found the bottom and realized they need to up their market penetration and give readers something to look out for, which is kind of a refreshing take, really."

Via Twitter, Gazette online content editor Lorée Rider tells us that her new directive is to come up with new stories 80 percent of the time. "Priorities have definitely shifted," she writes. "The focus on content means a TON more writing, which, personally, I'm happy about."

She also notes that the days when certain features will appear online will change, but declines to elaborate. Last week, Kate Jonuska's restaurant review appeared on coloradosprings.com Friday, same as in print. In the past, such reviews went online days before. Also on Friday, the paper launched SpringsWellness, lumping year-old Gazette stories with press releases and wire content into a 16-page, apparently print-exclusive, supplement.

If there's one person who perhaps sees a clear picture in all this, it's Steever, the latest in about a dozen to take the Gazette publisher's seat in the past two decades. He's occupied a variety of senior leadership positions at marketing and sales companies, most recently that of CEO of Chicago-based PromoWorks, a marketing services company. The most heralded, however, is his six-year tenure at Marian Heath Greeting Cards, a small, family-owned company he and Kushner bought in 2002.

Steever took over as president, and he and Kushner made Marian Heath a bigger player by buying several other companies, including Renaissance Greeting Cards. (Tellingly, recommendations on his LinkedIn profile are filled with phrases like "bottom-line orientation" and "aggressive sales, profit and new business goals.")

Their success was real; Freedom's release touting Steever's hire crowed that the businessman helped "to develop a distribution strategy and sales model that became an industry benchmark and resulted in revenue tripling during his tenure." But it didn't come without a price. As detailed in a Boston magazine profile of Kushner, the day after Renaissance was purchased, the employees were arranged "into a line like cattle" and sent to various parts of the building based on who got to keep their job. "In all, 34 of 77 employees were dismissed that day."

bryce@csindy.com

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