By: Mark Fitzgerald
Yes, Chris Anderson lets slip, he does know some of the ladies in Bravo’s semi-reality TV series The Real Housewives of Orange County ? unfortunately, he quickly adds. But he grins as he says it. They’re his neighbors. In fact, his 17-year-old daughter Amanda even appeared in one episode, riding at a horse show and later talking with one of the Real Housewive’s daughters, an actual friend from high school.
You didn’t want her on, but you signed the permission slip anyway? “Her mom signed the permission slip,” he says. And the grin returns.
On this perfect Southern California day in early April, the publisher and CEO of The Orange County Register drives toward Irvine Boulevard and lunch. Anderson chats about family: the other daughter who’s now interning where he held his first daily newspaper job, at the Walla Walla (Wash.) Union-Bulletin, and the son who’s studying filmmaking a couple towns away from the Register’s office. He also talks about marketing and editing a newspaper plus a growing portfolio of specialty publications in the real Orange County through which he’s driving. It’s the O.C. of malls, and traffic, and fish taco joints, and surf shops, and car-design firms, and exit ramps that lead to gated communities and beaches, as well as Little Saigon and Latino enclaves.
As he turns off Irvine, making for fusion seafood restaurant Opah in Aliso Viejo, he points out one of the last remaining orange groves in the area. There are maybe 100 trees.
Now that Orange County is its own brand for sun, sea, and a certain suburban sexiness ? and “O.C.” is as familiar a shorthand to a teenage girl in Akron as one in Anaheim ? it’s easy to forget that not so long ago it had hardly any identity at all (beyond standing for conservative Republicanism), and certainly was not firing up the popular imagination.
Even today, Orange County has 34 separate cities, but nothing that could be called its center. In a Southern California devoted to the medium cool, all of the O.C.’s major commercial TV stations are still beamed from L.A. Teenage soap operas and reality shows set in the O.C. may crowd prime time nowadays, but Orange County news is still often missing in action from the “local” TV newscasts.
It’s no exaggeration to say that an amorphous area known for Disneyland, orange groves, the home of Richard Nixon, and pretty much nothing else became “The O.C.” in large part because of the work of Chris Anderson and the newspaper he began transforming as a 30-year-old editor just arrived from Walla Walla.
Now, Anderson is leading the Orange County Register as publisher in a hot market during a distinctly frigid time for newspapers. Just as the Register helped change Orange County and gave it a badly needed identity, Anderson and his paper have the potential to reshape a troubled newspaper industry ? by leading with innovation and risk-taking in pioneering efforts to amass an audience with a portfolio of products that use or discard the Register brand as needed.
Freedom CEO Scott Flanders is now emphasizing collaboration between its newspapers and publications ? a no-brainer anywhere else, but a prickly task given the libertarian-loving company’s tradition of encouraging publishers to think of themselves as owners of their papers. Flanders uses Anderson as an example of how a Freedom publisher can remain entrepreneurial and collaborative.
“He is a leader at Freedom, and in the industry, in thinking about where newspapers are going,” Flanders says. Anderson, he adds, can also be convincing: “At my first board meeting as CEO, he argued successfully for making an eight-figure investment in our new heatset offset press.”
For pointing a path to newspaper revitalization, N. Christian Anderson III is E&P’s Publisher of the Year.
Looking forward pays off
Back in the early 1990s, Chris Anderson preached about a “newsroom without walls.” By 2000 that was literally the case at the Register.
Only two offices with doors remain on the third-floor newsroom, and virtually any wall that is not a supporting structure has been smashed down. Editorial meetings are held in the open, and tables are placed throughout the floor for impromptu meetings. Even the snack room, identified by a neon “Orange Grove” sign, is out in the open.
The walls are a painted in a shade that’s best described as just-this-side-of-sickly purple. “It’s not everyone’s favorite, but everything had been painted an insurance company beige, and we wanted to emphasize this was not an insurance company,” says Kenneth F. Brusic, the Register’s editor and senior vice president.
Reporters for the chain of community papers also work on this floor, at an “omni-desk” where they frequently file reports on the papers’ Web sites, and then reverse-publish stories for the print weeklies.
Long before it was fashionable and when he was still the Register’s editor, Anderson sensed that nimbleness was necessary, warning at industry gatherings against depending on one-size-fits-all newspaper products. It was the theme, for instance, of the first interview he gave when he became president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1999.
As publisher, he is pushing mightily to create an impressive portfolio of products, many of which ? like the young adult-oriented Squeeze OC and the luxury Coast regional magazine brand extensions ? betray no hint they are siblings of the Register. Anderson has created and broken apart a series of corporate organizations to remain agile in the newspaper economy’s riptide. The magazines have just become part of Freedom Specialty Media, a division of the Register’s publishing parent Freedom Orange County Information (see sidebar, p. 28).
Anderson has increased the Register’s commercial print work as well. Its new heatset web offset printing press was scheduled to start production as E&P went to print, allowing Freedom Specialty to print slick pages for its own line of magazines and for others. He adds that Freedom expects to double its annual commercial print revenues by the end of the year.
Six months ago, Anderson, 56, defied conventional wisdom by launching a second print daily newspaper unlike any other that mainstream papers have launched. OC Post isn’t aimed at commuters and young people like RedEye or Quick, and is intended to be paid, unlike, say, The Examiner home-delivered to elite ZIP codes in Washington. OC Post ? a paper with no reporters or traditional editors to call its own ? may also be the first American quick-read tabloid to truly figure out how to repackage content from the mother paper in ways that lure stubborn non-readers.
Just as important, he says, “We’re going to be profitable a lot sooner than people thought.”
One more thing about OC Post needs to be said: In the Freedom Communications stable of newspapers, preaching the libertarian gospel is every editorial page’s duty. But the OC Post does not run an editorial ? or even an Op-Ed, for that matter.
To focus the Register and its related products on continual growth, Anderson in March created a “chief innovation officer” position in order to find new ways of reaching Orange County. “We in newspapers are good about adapting to things,” says the innovation chief, Glenn Hall. “When the Internet came along, we went on the Internet; when mobile came along, we went on mobile. What we’re saying is, can we be a big part of inventing the new thing, rather than trying to catch up?”
If Anderson helped pioneer the portfolio approach that everyone from Newspaper Next to the Newspaper Association of America now preaches, he is also living in a future that looks increasingly likely for many big-city publishers.
As private equity and flush billionaires get the keys to Tribune Co., The Philadelphia Inquirer, Minneapolis Star Tribune, and elsewhere, Anderson has been living for three years under a corporate ownership that combines a 40% stake held by two of the private equity groups most active in media, with a board controlled by the descendants of Freedom Communications founder R.C. Hoiles. The arrangement satisfied third-generation family owners who wanted to cash out a few years ago, as well as fourth-generation members who wanted to stay in newspapers and keep the chain’s libertarian roots.
The result, Anderson says, is a privately held newspaper company that retains a family feel but acts as if it were a public company.
“I tell people at the Register that the Blackstone Group and Providence Equity Partners are not here because they want to publish libertarian newspapers,” Anderson says, referring to the two private equity investors that swung the $2 billion deal.
Finances are now top- of-mind even ? or perhaps especially ? in the newsroom. “Chris more than anyone has helped this organization understand its financial underpinnings,” says editor Brusic. “Before Chris became publisher, the numbers were a deep dark secret. Now all the people in the leadership team know the numbers.”
Since the refinancing to buy out the unhappy Hoiles family members ? which piled on more debt than Freedom had ever taken on ? the numbers have been mostly very good.
One of the first marching orders from CEO Flanders was to pump up the operating margins, which between 2001 and 2004 had slipped well below the industry average. Anderson created a “Margin Improvement Team” with CFO Diane Siegfried and Debbie Holzkamp, senior vice president of advertising and marketing, to find cost-cutting and revenue opportunities. “We over-doubled our bottom line and grew revenue considerably,” Siegfried says.
Freedom’s margins exceeded last year’s industry average of 23%, the company now says.
In 2005, Freedom Metro, the division headed by Anderson and consisting of the chain’s biggest papers, became the company’s first operating unit to surpass more than $100 million in profits. That was the fourth consecutive year of double-digit growth.
But 2006 was a tough year at the Register. Ad revenue dropped, as it did for nearly all metros in the country. Circulation dipped again, some of that due to a decision a couple of years ago to trim back the paper’s distribution area, discounted copies, and third-party circulation. Daily circulation Monday through Friday for the September 2006 period fell 3.7% to 287,207. But the paper reduced its discounted copies by 89%, and its third-party circ by 62%. And in September, buyouts were offered in the newsroom. An estimated 30 to 40 journalists, or 10% of the staff, left.
Through it all, though, Anderson has never lost his enthusiasm for newspapers. And he’s deft at selling others on his vision, says Siegfried. When a recruiter told her about a “media company in Orange County” looking for a CFO, the AT&T wireless executive was interested ? until she discovered it was a newspaper. “I was a snob,” she recalls of her first interview with Anderson. “I’d come from wireless, and what did I want with newspapers, this old media?”
They talked for two and a half hours, and found she wanted the job. “What I loved then, and I love now, is that he has this vision of the Register as ‘more than a newspaper.’ The Register really gave Orange County an identity.”
A place in the sun
“Newspapers make communities,” says Register Editor Brusic. “Just think of the Old West: Every town wanted an opera house, and a newspaper.”
When Anderson arrived at the newspaper in 1980 as a 30-year-old who was the surprise choice for editor, Orange County had no opera (Opera Pacific wouldn’t be established until 1986), and not much of a newspaper, either.
The old Santa Ana Register, which had adopted the newspaper-from-nowhere name The Register, was known mostly for a quirky libertarian viewpoint that too often spilled from the editorial page into news coverage ? and was steadily losing market share to the Los Angeles Times under Otis Chandler.
Then-publisher R. David Threshie, determined to turn the Register into a great paper, worried about the young age of the applicant for editor. But he had interviewed tons of other candidates, and Anderson was the one who made the most sense, who sized up the paper the best and offered the best suggestions for turning it around. “His youth turned out to be a real strength, not a liability,” Threshie says now. “He was fresh. He was innovative. And he wasn’t burdened by the weeds and grass that grows up among the people in this business.”
Anderson quickly corralled the libertarianism into the opinion pages ? where, a quarter-century later, it still prods and occasionally shocks with its editorials. (It was one of the few papers to oppose the Iraq war from the start, and it recently called for the axing of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.) He hired well, and the professionalism of the paper was soon beyond reproach. The Register quickly developed a national reputation for its bold design and its liberal use of color. When the paper won a Pulitzer for its photo coverage of the 1984 Olympics, an editor at the rival Los Angeles Times reportedly groused, “First Pulitzer ever won by a printing press.”
The new editor wanted an explicit Orange County identity for the paper as well as the community. “I fought for five years to get ‘Orange County’ into the flag,” Anderson recalls. The year he did, 1985, the Orange County Register won its first Pulitzer Prize. It’s won two more since, in 1989 for Edward Humes’ beat reporting on problems with military night-vision goggles, and in 1996 for an investigation into unethical practices at the University of California, Irvine’s fertility clinic.
That first Pulitzer explains an unusual trophy case just outside the Register’s newsroom. Inside is a badly stained dress shirt and tie, an empty magnum of champagne, and a cork. The shirt in the case is Anderson’s. “We had a really good time in the newsroom,” he says. “I had brought in a case of Louis Roederer, my favorite champagne. … We drank a little bit of it, but sprayed more on each other. When I took the tie to get it cleaned, my dry cleaner said, ‘Forget it.’ So I saved the shirt and tie and champagne corks as mementos, and the interior designer of our newsroom took it from there.”
Adds Threshie, “If you had seen that paper in the late ’70s and then again in the late 1980s, you wouldn’t have recognized it. [Anderson] was instrumental in bringing the Register into the forefront as one of the better papers in the country. And from the news/editorial point of view, this was entirely Chris’ doing.”
But according to Paul Apodaca, an assistant professor at Chapman University in Orange ? and considered an expert on the county’s history ? the Register’s profound impact on Orange County’s identity isn’t necessarily accurate. “They really did help to influence the image of the county. Not the reality, but the image,” he says. “I think it’s gotten so strident in its reinforcing of that image ? an image of an image, now ? that I find it hard to read.”
Early on, Anderson showed a contrarian bent in newspaper strategy. The late 1970s and early 1980s, for instance, saw the dawn of the golden era of editorial zoning. Every modern paper simply had to zone. But Anderson believed ? still believes ? that zoning would wreck whatever hope the paper had of building an identity for Orange County.
“Why zone? Why not create this place called Orange County?” he asks, hunching forward at lunch, as if he still has to convince skeptics. “If we had zoned, you wouldn’t have had that sense of place.”
Even today, when the paper zones in three wide swaths of north, central, and south, the sections always include items from every part of the county.
The Register, Anderson believed from the start, “needed to be provincial, but not to a fault.” It was “local, local, local” before “local, local, local” was cool. Every single high school football game gets a write-up. Brusic says his boss changed the culture of the newsroom radically by getting reporters to do their job as if they were on a weekly.
“Big metro newspapers have a tendency to make pronouncements to people. We try to have a conversation with them,” the editor says. Big papers, he adds, “do a lot of bowing and scraping” to the established community organizations and public figures.
Anderson warns reporters they’re not coming to a big-city paper: “We’re a destination paper, but if you want to work downtown, you’ll have to go to another paper.”
Going local, and cultivating an Orange County identity separate from its neighbor Los Angeles, was the strategy that, in the end, saved the Register.
After all, when Anderson arrived in 1980, the Los Angeles Times had been settled in a big way in Orange County for 15 years. The Times was selling just a few thousand fewer copies than the Register in the county on weekdays ? and it was clobbering them on Sundays. Through the 1980s, the Times turned up the pressure. Homeowners got the Sunday Times along with their cable service. Register promotion people would arrive to renew a longtime sponsorship of an event, only to find the Times was the new sponsor. Most of the Register sponsorships were trade deals, Anderson says, where the Times would pay cash.
The Register fought back in two ways. First, it competed on price. Deep discounting is still an important weapon in a market where home delivery represents 90% or more of total circulation, says VP/Circulation Larry Riley. “People see low price as a bargain now,” he says. “It does not diminish their view of the product.”
Even more important was Anderson’s determination to stay local. “My goal at that time was never to lose focus on what we are: We are Orange County, and you can’t out-local the local paper,” he declares. It worked, and the Times soon abandoned its aggressive targeting of Orange County.
Ironically, Anderson was also, for a time, battling his future wife. He met the former Aletha Yurewicz at a California Society of Newspaper Editors convention when she was news editor of The Sacramento Bee. A long-distance relationship developed, and when Aletha moved to Southern California, she became the business news editor of the Los Angeles Times’ Orange County edition.
After they married in 1986, Anderson says, “she left the field to stay home with our son.” After a brief return to journalism as a producer for the Orange County News- Channel, Aletha is now what Anderson calls “major-league volunteer,” with much of her work devoted to the county affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the breast cancer awareness and research organization.
Summer of ’69
Even as N. (for Nelson) Christian Anderson III talks as all publishers must about transitioning to online or some other non-print media, he’s clearly addicted to the physical newspaper. His wife grabs the Register in the morning, so nowadays he reads the O.C. Post first thing. But he has to be able to hold it in his hands. “I just love the tactile thing of print,” he says. “I can’t imagine getting up in the morning and not having a paper.”
The feeling goes way back: His family got three papers delivered when he was a child. He was a paperboy, and later became a stringer for the local weekly.
But if there was one episode that made Chris Anderson a newspaper man, it happened in the summer of 1969. He was home in Heppner in eastern Oregon after his freshman year in college. He had a summer internship at the Heppner Gazette-Times, a 1,500-circulation weekly owned by family friends Wes and Helen Sherman. “This was so mom-and-pop that their house was physically attached to the newspaper [office],” Anderson laughs.
Wes and Helen decided to take advantage of Anderson’s arrival by taking their first vacation in 25 years. Anderson would run the paper. Then, just days into the vacation, Wes Sherman died of a heart attack.
Chris Anderson, who had not yet turned 19, was stunned. He asked his father, in a panic, what he should do. “Just do what Wes would have done,” his father told him.
“So I just kept putting the paper out every week,” he says. With Helen Sherman distracted by grief, Anderson took charge of the tiny staff, writing articles ? including Wes’ obituary ? selling ads, working the press, and bundling papers. When the folding machine broke, he was the one who went out and got a replacement.
When that summer ended, Helen sold the paper and Anderson headed back to school a college sophomore and an experienced publisher.
Wes Sherman wasn’t the last publisher to spot young Chris Anderson’s leadership skills. Frank Blethen hired him as editor of the Walla Walla (Wash.) Union-Bulletin when Anderson was 25. After a couple of years, he moved him to the chain’s flagship Seattle Times. Years later, Blethen tapped Anderson again, bringing him on the Seattle Times Co. board.
From Cali to Colorado, and back
By the beginning of the 1990s, after more than a decade as the Register’s editor and being appointed executive vice president and associate publisher in 1992, Anderson was looking to head elsewhere. He told Threshie to think about getting someone else, believing that all editors should move on after a while.
After Freedom bought up Media General’s string of Orange County weeklies in 1990, Anderson saw his opening, as those papers cemented Freedom’s lock on Orange County news. In 1994, the publisher’s job at Freedom’s Colorado Springs daily, The Gazette, opened up, and he accepted the position.
Anderson fell in love with the paper and Colorado. “After being there a couple of years I had absolutely no intention of going back to the Register,” he says. “I was 44 and I felt I could go another 20 years and retire. After all, in all the time that Freedom owned that paper it had only had two other publishers.”
When the call came asking Anderson to come back to the Register as its publisher, the most difficult task was the first one: breaking the news to his family, who were unhappy about moving from Colorado Springs. He assumed the post in 1999.
The immediate strategic imperative in Orange County was getting at all those people the paper was missing. “It’s a hard thing for me to say, having been the editor for 12 years and eight years as publisher, but not everybody in the market likes the Register,” Anderson admits.
Freedom began buying and launching a series of magazines targeted to different parts of the county’s affluent demographic. It created the Web-first, print-second OC Squeeze to go after younger club- hopping and trail-hiking adults. Then came the intriguing OC Post.
A little tab’ll do ya
The most striking newsroom in the building is one floor below the Register’s. On the second floor, OC Post is produced by 20 people at a handful of workstations in a wide-open space.
The view is the same uninspiring vista that everyone, including publisher Anderson, faces every day (the back of a truck leasing company and ribbons of elevated highways), and corporate nixed the pool table that Brusic wanted to put in. But it looks nothing like the Register newsroom ? just as OC Post differs from the mother ship that provides all its content.
Quick-read papers these days are no novelty, and every one claims to be “smartly” edited. But the OC Post may be one of the best U.S. examples that actually edits intelligently for a time-pressed reader who doesn’t normally pick up the Register.
“We had no model to follow,” Anderson says. Yet it has rules. Like successful Latin American start-ups such as Nuestro Diario in Guatemala, OC Post provides multiple entry points to a story, and never repeats information in the body of a story and a photo caption, for example. Advertising space is strictly limited to avoid bulking the paper up. He adds, “There’s a tipping point where it’s not useful anymore.”
OC Post is distributing about 80,000 copies on weekdays and 100,000 on weekends, and so far not quite 30,000 households have ponied up the $20-a-year subscription cost. “I’m not going to be surprised if we get to 100,000” paid circulation, Anderson says.
On the other hand, he shrugs, maybe it won’t get much past 50,000 paid, and it will become a free-distribution paper. The important thing is that it’s reaching new readers with virtually no cannibalization of the Register.
He acknowledges that OC Post bends Freedom’s rule on running libertarian-based editorials: It doesn’t run any at all. “That’s a big deal,” Anderson says with a conspiratorial grin. “Maybe I shouldn’t say it out loud.”
Didn’t we say the man believes in nimbleness?