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.

ON A BRISK JANUARY MORNING, Aaron Kushner hurries into the Bristol Lounge at the Four Seasons, looking like a fresh-scrubbed boy wonder. Clean-shaven and handsome, he’s a lean wire of a man who gives off the faintest air of having more important things to do than talk to a reporter about his heretofore hush-hush bid to buy the Globe. Over the next 90 minutes, however, he answers questions with-out hesitation (and often without specifics).

“You know,” he tells me after we’ve taken our seats, “the reality is that there isn’t today a good, clear model about how you profitably grow a newspaper. And that is our objective: to profitably grow a newspaper and particularly the Globe, and it’s gonna take a lot of patience and a lot of capital.”

If Kushner does get the paper, though, he’ll be wandering into a decimated landscape. In the first half of 2009 alone, at least 105 newspapers went under, taking with them 10,000 jobs. There have been other entrepreneurs certain they could overcome such troubles. In 2007 Sam Zell, the billionaire real estate mogul, bought the Tribune Company — which includes the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Baltimore Sun — claiming he would bolster everything from ad revenue to readership. He lasted just a couple of years and drove the company into bankruptcy. There was also Brian Tierney, a former PR executive who acquired the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2006, only to see ad revenues evaporate. Before long, yet another big-name newspaper had filed for bankruptcy. And on Kushner’s own investment team is Chris Harte, whose private equity group bought Minneapolis’s Star Tribune in 2007. Then the recession hit, and, yes, that one filed for bankruptcy, too. The traditional newspaper model seems to be in a death spiral, with journalists, to say nothing of the public, left wondering about the future of the printed word.

Kushner, though, is confident. A self-described Boston “newbie,” he lives in a $1.7 million house in Wellesley with his wife and three kids. After growing up in Georgia, he attended Stanford University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in economics and a master’s degree in organizational analysis, and starred on the gymnastics team. His first break came during the Internet bubble, when in 1999 he sold a company he’d started —, which allowed people to change their addresses online — to Imagitas, a business then based in Newton. It was that deal that eventually brought Kushner to the Boston area. A few years later, he and a business partner started looking around for other acquisitions, which led them to a greeting-card company in Wareham called Marian Heath. (Kushner’s grandfather and great-grandfather had both been in the greeting-card game.) Kushner and his partner bought Marian Heath in 2002 with funding from the Walnut Group, a Cincinnati investment company, and Kushner became CEO.

“At the time it was a very contrarian thing,” Kushner tells me of moving into what some considered an endangered industry. “E-greetings were incredibly popular, and there were a lot of people who actually were saying that physical paper greeting cards were going to disappear, similar to how people are saying today that physical newspapers are going to disappear. And I believed, as I still believe, that there are things that simply cannot be replaced digitally.”