Can Aaron Kushner Save the Globe?
Aaron Kushner, the former CEO of a small South Shore greeting-card company, has a top-secret cure for the dying newspaper industry. And he plans to put it to the test by buying the Boston Globe.
It’s difficult to see how running a small greeting card company would prepare someone for owning one of the largest newspapers in the country, but Kushner sees plenty of overlap. “At Marian Heath, I was not a writer. I was not an artist. I did not do layout…. Similarly, I don’t expect I’ll ever write a newspaper story,” he says. “But if I can bring in more people who can write even more stories that do touch people in ways that are meaningful, what a wonderful thing.”
That does sound wonderful, but what’s the plan? Kushner bats the question away without quite answering it: “We will take the things that the Globe does really well and expand upon them and layer on additional things that they haven’t yet been able to do and do those.”
But how do you generate the revenue for any kind of expansion in a battered industry? The answer is one more detail about Kushner’s plan that we don’t know. What we do know are the identities of a few of the investors he has assembled to bankroll his bid.
One is Brendan Burns, an adjunct associate professor at Columbia Business School and former CEO of AdOne, the online classifieds empire. I call Burns and ask how Kushner, without any newspaper experience, can possibly right the Globe’s ship. “The most successful entrepreneurs often see a reality that may not exist yet,” Burns says, “but in their estimation, with the right ingenuity and sometimes a leap of faith, that vision can become a very exciting reality.” Does Burns’s background in online classifieds have a place in Kushner’s plan? “Unquestionably,” Burns replies. He says he also envisions incorporating online tools to facilitate real-time negotiations for a job or an item that’s for sale. The whole thing sounds like Craigslist meets Facebook, so, back at the Four Seasons, I ask Kushner if that’s what he has in mind. Kushner stares for a moment, then cocks his head slightly. Have I stumbled onto one of his strategies for newspaper success? “No,” he says finally. “I mean, it’s a very dynamic space, and there is a great deal that you can do today using networking technology, using tools that three or four years ago were very expensive to deploy if they even existed.”
To cut through the entrepreneur-speak, I call Chris Harte — the former publisher of the Star Tribune and one of Kushner’s investors. Unfortunately, Harte tells me that he had a similarly confused reaction when he first met Kushner. “I didn’t even understand many of [the details] in the first 30 minutes,” he tells me. “I thought, Hmm, I’m not sure I understand this yet, I’m very skeptical, but this guy is very specific about what he wants to do and he’s got massive spreadsheets showing all his assumptions and I can read and test and talk to him more and find out whether or not he’s got some answers. And I did, and I think he does.” Harte, who has a long history in newspapers, seems taken with Kushner’s youthful exuberance. “There’s nobody that I’m aware of who’s got as innovative a plan and as good an understanding of some possible solutions that I think will be seen later as among the foundations for most newspapers going forward.”