Despite odds, California city becomes 2 newspaper town

LONG BEACH, Calif. — The latest experiment in American journalism is a throwback: a new daily newspaper to compete against an established one in a big city.

With Monday’s debut of the Long Beach Register, the ambitious owners of the Orange County Register are expanding their bet that consumers will reward an investment in news inked on paper and delivered to their doorsteps.

The competition is the Long Beach Press-Telegram, which was founded more than a century ago and maintains an average weekday circulation of about 55,000.

As a result of the budding newspaper battle, this city of 468,000 is joining the likes of Chicago, Philadelphia and Boston as what has become a rarity in 21st century America — the two newspaper town. Never mind shrinking circulations and online news migration.

“We believe that a city with the size and vibrancy of Long Beach should be happy to support a great newspaper of the variety we want to provide,” said Aaron Kushner, who since buying the Orange County Register a year ago with a partner has surprised industry watchers by expanding reporting staff and page counts. “If it is, we’ll make healthy money. If it’s not, that’ll be unfortunate for everyone. But we believe we’ll be successful.”

By launching the Long Beach Register, Kushner, publisher of the Register and CEO of Freedom Communications, is taking his contrarian instincts outside of Orange County.

Media business analyst Rick Edmonds said the last time he can recall a major U.S. city adding a new daily paper was around World War II, when Chicago got the Sun-Times and New York got Newsday. A brewing newspaper war in New Orleans between that city’s Times-Picayune and a challenger based about 80 miles away in Baton Rouge, La., is the closest to what’s unfolding in Long Beach.

“How will it play out?” asked Edmonds, of the Poynter Institute, a journalism foundation in St. Petersburg, Fla. “Don’t really know until it happens.”

Long Beach is a diverse city better known for its sprawling container ship port — one of the world’s largest — than its beaches.

While its oceanfront drive features a large aquarium and the historic Queen Mary ocean liner, it also has big city problems including gangs. Bordering Orange County’s urbanized north, it is in Los Angeles County, about 20 miles south of downtown LA.

In their small, sunlight-flooded newsroom, reporters for the new Register were greeted Thursday by two boxes of doughnuts and the kinds of issues that bedevil startups: who sits where, how come this outlet has no power, and how to get an Internet connection?

After a round of introductions, editor Paul Eakins told his staff that with at least 16 pages to fill each day, the paper would both cover “hyperlocal” news and welcome contributions from readers. In all, the paper has about 20 editorial employees.

Write about a boy becoming an Eagle Scout? Yes. Opening of the new dog park? You bet.

“I don’t think they quite know what’s coming,” Eakins said of readers.

The plan Monday is to distribute 10,000 copies, publisher Ian Lamont said. It will be wrapped around the Orange County Register, so readers will get coverage of Long Beach’s schools, sports, courts, happenings and City Hall — plus news from around the region and world. There will be no separate Long Beach paper on weekends.

Several reporters at the Long Beach Register are Press-Telegram alums, and though Eakins downplayed any rivalry, at the staff meeting there were gentle jabs about besting an old employer.

For their part, the Press-Telegram’s bosses are giving no ground.

“We’re not going to let a competitor come into our city and take it,” said Michael A. Anastasi, vice president of news and executive editor of the Los Angeles News Group, which owns the Press-Telegram and eight other daily papers in the area.

The competition’s certain winners, Anastasi said, will be local residents.

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