Blanketing ‘The O.C.’ with Pubs for Every Demographic

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

The Orange County Register has not always had a golden touch in diversifying its products to reach more of its market.

A stab at publishing consumer magazines in the mid-1990s flopped. It launched a 24-hour local TV newscast in 1990 and stuck with it for six loss-taking years before giving up. Even now, it is going back to the drawing board with one of its newest initiatives, the young-skewing Squeeze OC.

But through its Freedom Orange County Information parent, the Register in recent years has become even more aggressive in expanding its portfolio. “If you haven’t failed, you haven’t tried hard enough,” says Glenn Hall, a Register deputy editor who has the informal title of “chief innovation officer.”

Publisher/CEO Chris Anderson says that the logic behind the strategy of an expanded portfolio is inescapable. There are about a million households in Orange County, and Freedom is reaching 350,000 of them with its print products. “We’ve got to give the rest of them something they want,” he says.

One leg of that strategy is publishing seven slick lifestyle magazines targeted at affluent households. Freedom bought the well-regarded Coast magazine, and recently launched Coast Kids. Each goes to about 50,000 households. Freedom also publishes a high-end home magazine, and a tourist-oriented slick called Preferred Destinations.

One thing they all have in common is that the Register brand is virtually invisible in them. A big reason is that among certain quarters in Orange County, the Register is looked upon as more of a blue-collar paper, while the Los Angeles Times is seen as white-collar.

Another reason is that the magazines are mostly hitting non-Register readers, says Christopher O. Schulz, vice president of the Freedom Specialty Media unit.

One highly ballyhooed launch, Squeeze OC, is getting a fundamental makeover after not quite 18 months in the market. Aimed at affluent and active young adults, Squeeze OC was intended to be a Web-first product with a print weekly functioning mostly as a promotional vehicle.

“Strategically and tactically, I think we did Squeeze OC a little wrong,” Schulz says. “We haven’t been able to monetize the Web.” The tab also was not sufficiently differentiated from the strong local alt-weekly. “We wanted it to be OC Weekly ? minus the hooker ads,” Schulz says.

Big mistake. The real market for Squeeze OC, Freedom now believes, is not an “indoor” audience attracted to alts for news and listings, but rather the “outdoor” audience that wants to take advantage of the myriad things to do in a sunny county.

Through its fits and starts, Freedom Specialty Media is learning when to involve the Register mother ship ? and when to stay clear. At first, the large and experienced Register sales staff looked to be a natural resource for the slick magazines. But it turned out that salespeople simply tried to upsell their newspaper accounts on a magazine such as Orange County Home. “They sold to their regular door-hanging and windows guys, so we ended up with all these horrible-looking ads that really poisoned the look of the magazine,” says Schulz.

Similarly, Register staff photographers assigned to the real estate magazine would take warts-and-all shots of homes that defeated the purpose of what is supposed to be an aspirational publication. But with freelance photogs and a separate sales staff, Orange County Home got great cover art and ads from businesses that would never buy an ad in the Register.

On the other hand, the magazines have dipped into the Register for editorial content. With just a little tweaking, a feature on food at the ballpark ? which will run just once, and never again in the paper ? can find new life in one of the slicks.

Freedom’s Spanish-language weekly Exc?lsior also is now published by the specialty pub unit.

The next step for Freedom and the Register in expanding the portfolio could lean on the Bloomberg model of selling information as much as creating it, says innovation chief Hall, a Bloomberg veteran. “I would rather be at a place that is putting out many varied products like here,” he says, “than a place that is shrinking its product line.”

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