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Questionable journalism ethics or smart business? Orange County Register ad deal with universities raises eyebrows

Since its new publisher took over last summer, The Orange County Register has been praised for being one of the few newspapers in the country that is hiring reporters, and expanding its print edition.

But the reaction to one of the Register’s new additions has been met with controversy. Depending on who you ask, it’s either a smart way to bring in revenue, or a serious breach of journalism ethics.

If you subscribe to the O.C. Register, you’ll see a section three times a week, 45 weeks a year, on three local universities. Depending on the day, it will be entirely devoted to stories on either UC Irvine, Cal State, Fullerton or Chapman University.

They’re filled with feel-good features, pictures of smiling students, and guest columns written by faculty.

Unless you noticed a tiny disclaimer buried on the second page, you would have no idea that the subject of all these glowing stories is also the primary advertiser.

For universities, a deal that was hard to resist

Fullerton Chief Communications Officer Jeff Cook says when Register executives approached his school, their proposal seemed almost too good to be true.

“For me to march into a newspaper and say: ‘You should do a section on our university?’ My past experience is one that wouldn’t be an appropriate ask,” said Cook.

He liked the Register’s proposal enough to fork over almost his department’s entire ad budget: $275,000. The money comes from ancillary fees the university generates, such as profits from the bookstore or the dining hall. No taxpayer dollars are used.

Cook says Fullerton’s operating budget has been cut by some $40 million over the past few years, so it’s important for the public university to promote a positive image in order to attract private donations.

“Part of the process of connecting with presenting them with legitimate points of pride with the institution” said Cook.

Journalism professor: 'This would be a case-study for our class'

The way Professor Jeffrey Brody sees it, the arrangement is more a point of embarrassment for Fullerton and the Register.

“I teach a media ethics course and our students are well aware of these conflicts of interests, so this would be a case study for our class,” said Brody.

He was a reporter at the Register for a decade before joining Fullerton as a journalism professor. He says many of his former colleagues share his concern about the arrangement, but are afraid to speak out.

“When I worked as a journalist, it was clear that you shouldn’t even have sources paying (for) meals," said Brody. "Now you have sources paying for entire sections. It creates an image of impropriety.”

A copy of the contract (which can be read below) between the newspaper and Fullerton states the university is expected to “actively collaborate” with the Register on story ideas, something that is never disclosed in the printed section.

The agreement boasts what a good deal the schools are getting, saying that they would be spending about four times as much – $1,160,000 – if they were paying retail ad rates for the sections.

The contract makes clear that the Register “retains final authority on story selection and editing” in order to “preserve credibility.”

But Brody worries that credibility could be at risk. He says the Register’s owner and publisher Aaron Kushner – who was previously an executive at a greeting card company – doesn’t understand a basic journalism tenet: There should be a firewall between editorial and advertising.

“Kushner comes to the newspaper industry without a background in the news," said Brody. "I wish I could sit down with him and explain to him some of the traditions of American journalism.” 

Publisher: 'Advertisers don't dictate what is written about them'

When we sat down with Kushner in his Santa Ana office, he was unapologetic. He said the university sections are popular with readers.

“It’s a great service for the community,” said Kushner. "Orange County loves it."

He thinks the deal with the schools is hardly news.

“What they’re doing is they’re anchor advertisers," said Kushner. "Having advertisers in a section that is both relevant to the advertiser and the subscriber is not a unique model. That is the newspaper model.”

Kushner says what is unique is that he’s adding sections, and covering universities more than any other newspaper in the country. He says the arrangement is no different than a car manufacturer taking out ads in the auto section.

“Advertisers don’t dictate what is written about them," said Kushner. "We have advertisers in every major sector we cover. Does it color the coverage? Not if we’re doing our job.”

'The devil is in the execution'

Media critic Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute, says he doesn’t see a problem with the arrangement, as long as the Register is transparent.

"The ethical line is: Do people know what they're looking at?" said Rosenstiel.

He says readers will be the ultimate judge. Do they feel like they’re reading advertising or news stories?

“The devil is in the execution,” said Rosenstiel. 

The critic says as all newspapers struggle to survive amid declining ad sales and readership, they will have to be increasingly creative about how they bring in revenue.

"Figuring out new ways to generate revenue is an important part of the search to sustain journalism," said Rosenstiel.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been changed from an earlier version to fix a quote about American journalism traditions that was incorrectly attributed to Jeff Cook. It should have been attributed to Professor Jeffrey Brody.