How A California Newspaper Took $825,000 To Shill For Local Colleges

The Orange County Register's newest weekly sections on local colleges, which are being financed in part by the colleges themselves, are raising concerns about conflicts of interest and credibility from both inside and outside of the newspaper.

At issue is the financial arrangement the Santa Ana, CA, daily has with three local campuses: Chapman University; California State University, Fullerton; and the University of California at Irvine.

Under an agreement reached earlier this year, the paper is publishing a separate, weekly six-page special section devoted to positive coverage of each university's news and events. Each of those sections include two columns authored by top university staffers. 

In exchange, each university is paying the newspaper $275,000, supposedly for advertising that will appear in that section for one year. The sections began running on April 1.

The financial arrangement and partial control of content by the universities has some at the paper and on campus concerned.

“It does make me a little uncomfortable,” said Bill Johnson, a Register columnist. “In this business, appearance is everything. Appearance-wise, it is a bit troubling. If you know people are paying for coverage does that affect the coverage? I would like to think we are way above that, writing good news to satisfy an advertiser.”

Jeffrey Brody, a journalism professor at Cal State, Fullerton, and a former Register reporter, called it a “disguised advertorial.”

“That's a breach of the wall between editorial and advertising of traditional newspapering,” he said. “A newspaper should not be making these kinds of quid pro quo agreements. It seems that that does damage the credibility of the university.”

A review of the most recent sections from April 15, 16, and 17, finds stories written by Register staffers, along with two pieces from each university's faculty or administration.

A half-page color ad for the university appears on the back page of each section.

The stories range from a review of the number of bronze busts on the Chapman campus to a report on UC-Irvine's annual “Undie Run.” None of the stories could be described as critical of the school. 

While newspapers often clearly label such content as “advertisement” or “advertorial,” the only note related to the Register's arrangement is a small box on the inside of the page alongside the staff list stating “while the university is the section's primary advertising sponsor, all editorial decisions are independent of the university's control.”

But that does not mean that the universities do not have at least an appearance of some control, with an actual ability to provide input on story decisions.

“We can suggest stories,” said Cathy Lawhon, media relations director for U.C.-Irvine. She later called the section “a great way for us to get [our] messages out.”

Jeffrey Cook, chief communications officer for Cal State, Fullerton, said, “It is true we pitch story ideas, but we pitch story ideas to many other media outlets.” Asked about the ethics of the arrangement, Cook said, “I think those are really issues for the Orange County Register not the university. I don't see this as a pay-to-play arrangement.”

When Media Matters asked Publisher Aaron Kushner for his view on the ethical concerns of observers and the credibility impact of the deal, his office sent a statement that read, in part:

As we state in our staff box in each of these new sections, we created these sections for the benefit of our subscribers. It's the same reason that we've launched new OCVarsity Music & Arts sections, Fashion section, Faith & Values section, Business sections and the list goes on. We are constantly working to give our subscribers more and give Orange County more.   

I have enormous respect for the journalists and editors in our newsroom who have produced such an amazing array of great new content, not just these sections but the dozens of new sections we have launched in just the last six months. It's remarkable how much ground our editorial team at the Register has covered in such a short time.   

Asked again to specifically comment on claims of conflict of interest and credibility, Kushner's office did not respond.

The special sections, along with a recently instituted paywall on online content, may be helping the Register implement other recent changes put in place since the paper was bought just last year by Kushner's ownership group. 

The paper has dramatically expanded the number of pages in the print edition. Kushner has also beefed up staffing since taking over with dozens of new hires.

Still, the ethical concerns from the university special section arrangement can't help but worry observers.

The deal brought criticism from Chapman University's student-run newspaper, The Panther, which published a critical editorial last Monday that stated: “Though the reporters are just doing their job, a $275,000 paycheck for the Register could skew reporting.”

That skew may already be underway. One recent Chapman University story noticeably absent from the Register is the recent suspension of baseball coach Tom Tereschuk for allegedly using profanity around players, with one former player stating that the coach has “screamed and cussed at me on the field.”

The arrangement is somewhat reminiscent of the 1999 Staples Center scandal involving the nearby Los Angeles Times. In that incident, the Times dedicated an entire issue of its Sunday magazine to the new Staples Center arena, but did not disclose that it had agreed to split profits from the issue with the arena itself.

The fallout led to a lengthy internal review by the Times and the eventual resignation of its publisher and editor.

“The concern for me is whether the audience understands the nature of the content and whether there have been any promises from the paper to the universities,” said Kelly McBride, a senior ethics instructor at The Poynter Institute, who later added, “The reader should know when they pick up the section exactly what the promises are between the paper and the university. This is real conflict in the way that I believe that this content is not completely independent and everything else in the paper, almost everything in the paper, is.”

Alex S. Jones, former media writer for The New York Times and current director of the Shorenstein Center on The Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University, agreed.

"This is writing for money, it is not going to be critical of these schools, it is an advertising public relations supplement," he said, noting that if it is not labeled properly, “It will be something that undermines the belief that The Orange County Register is independent journalistically and will give credence to the idea that you can buy the news columns of The Orange County Register; that's not good.”