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Architect of Register's rise resigns

Publisher N. Christian Anderson's position at the paper's parent firm is squeezed out.

August 23, 2007|William Heisel, Ashley Powers and David Reyes | Times Staff Writers

Amid falling profit and failing efforts to lure readers with breezy tabloids, the Orange County Register's top executive announced Wednesday that he was leaving the paper he had transformed from a sluggish daily to a Pulitzer Prize winner known for its bold graphics and design.

N. Christian Anderson III, 57, named in May as publisher of the year by industry magazine Editor & Publisher, will leave Orange County's largest newspaper Sept. 15.

His departure after almost three decades with the paper's parent company, Freedom Communications Inc., was due to a reorganization that squeezed out his job, a top company executive said.

In recent months, Anderson had suffered major setbacks. He was supposed to drop his publisher title and continue to oversee a corporate division. However, the company's choice as his successor in June turned out to have fudged her resume. And Anderson's latest attempts to lure readers -- a pair of tabloids with big photos and short stories -- flopped.

"OC Post and SqueezeOC were risks and they failed," said a Register reporter.

Anderson's departure comes amid stormy times for newspapers, which are reeling from online competition and nose-diving ad revenue.

Freedom Orange County Information, the company division that includes the Register and its sister publications and websites, has not been exempt from the trend.

This month, the Register cut about three dozen newsroom jobs. One reporter said staff members saw some justice in Anderson's departure because it "wasn't just the workers who produce the paper every day who were forced to sacrifice."

Freedom also announced Wednesday a restructuring that merges FOCI, of which Anderson is president, with its community newspapers division, a union that eliminated Anderson's job.

The merger is expected to save Freedom $10 million, Chief Executive Scott N. Flanders said, and is expected to lead to the increased sharing of stories by its papers. Jonathan Segal, president of community newspapers, will head the combined division.

Anderson "was supportive and involved in all the deliberations," Flanders said. "When the position didn't go to him, he decided to move on."

Anderson's replacement as publisher is Terry Horne, publisher of the East Valley Tribune in Mesa, Ariz., which Freedom owns. Horne did not return calls seeking comment.

Anderson held newspaper jobs in the Pacific Northwest before becoming the Register's editor in 1980, as the paper was jockeying with The Times for dominance in a fast-growing county still dotted with orange groves.

When Anderson arrived at what was then known simply as the Register, he was the youngest editor of a metro daily in the country, according to his company biography.

The paper was known for staunch libertarian views that played not only in its editorial pages but also in its news stories, referring to public schools as "taxpayer-supported schools."

Anderson put a stop to that practice, pushed for visually enticing design and fought to change the paper's name, to the Orange County Register, according to an Editor & Publisher story.

"If you had seen that paper in the late '70s and then again in the late 1980s, you wouldn't have recognized it," R. David Threshie, the Register publisher who hired Anderson, told E&P. Anderson "was instrumental in bringing the Register into the forefront as one of the better papers in the country."

Anderson hired "a more aggressive and professional staff to bolster the Register's hold," said Jeff Brody, a Cal State Fullerton professor of communications and former Register reporter. The paper won the first of its three Pulitzers in 1985 in spot news photography.

"I make no bones about it. . . . The Los Angeles Times gave them a run for the money, but Chris Anderson understood Orange County," said Robert Scheer, a USC journalism professor and former Times columnist. "He did local, local, local, and they were very good at it."

In 1994, Anderson became president and publisher of Freedom's paper in Colorado Springs, Colo., the Gazette. He returned to the Register in 1999 as its top executive.

Freedom was shaken up in 2004 when descendants of Freedom founder R.C. Hoiles sold a 40% stake in the company for $470 million to the private equity firms Blackstone Partners and Providence Equity Partners. The proceeds allowed some family members to cash out.

Anderson was in the running for the company's chief executive job that year when Flanders got the position. Anderson had offers to go elsewhere, but Flanders talked him into staying, the company's CEO said.

The Register's current circulation is about 300,000, making it the 36th-largest daily in the country, according to the nonprofit Audit Bureau of Circulations. But in recent years, capturing readers and advertisers became trickier.

A year ago Tuesday, Freedom launched the OC Post, which E&P initially hailed as possibly "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."

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