Dozens of veteran journalists have applied for voluntary buyouts at the Orange County Register, and those who haven't are bracing for layoffs in the latest sign that the daily paper's expansion is faltering.
Register owner Aaron Kushner told a somber newsroom Monday that the paper's revenue is growing but not as fast as he had anticipated when he bought the Register nearly two years ago.
"Contrary to popular speculation, we have not died and are not dying," he said, according to a newsroom employee who attended the meeting.
Still, the cuts are expected to wipe out the staffing gains the paper made during a highly publicized hiring spree in 2012 and 2013, when Kushner bucked a nationwide trend of newsroom downsizing amid declining advertising revenue and circulation.
"Everybody wanted to believe Aaron when he rolled into town, dreaming of the resurgence of print," said Jeff Brody, a Cal State Fullerton journalism professor and former Register reporter. "Unfortunately, the story is ending badly."
The downsizing comes shortly after the Register's parent company expanded its Southern California presence. In the last 10 months, Freedom Communications Inc. bought the Riverside Press-Enterprise and launched two papers, the Long Beach Register and Los Angeles Register.
In January, Freedom Communications laid off 71 employees in a move management called "a difficult but important restructuring."
Last week, staffers were told that Freedom was merging the Long Beach and Los Angeles papers, eliminating between 20 and 100 jobs and implementing two-week unpaid furloughs for any employees who survive the cuts.
Employees had until 10 p.m. Monday to apply for buyouts, which would come with severance pay of as much as 20 weeks' salary.
About 50 journalists, including some of the paper's most experienced, had applied for buyouts by midday Monday, Register staffers said. Several announced their decisions on social media. Sports columnist T.J. Simers wrote in his column that he was leaving voluntarily.
"The entire newspaper industry was pulling for the Register, the last great hope for newspaper survival," Simers said in his column. "I don't know the financial reasons why they have had to suddenly apply the brakes; it really doesn't matter."
One Register staffer said he was told that the paper needed to trim $6 million in newsroom salary — a move that could slash about 100 of 350 newsroom jobs.