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Anaheim mayor criticizes 'unusual' proposal to have Orange County Register's owner broker deal for city (update)

Orange County Register Publisher Aaron Kushner (left) and company President Eric Spitz.
Grant Slater/KPCC
Orange County Register Publisher Aaron Kushner (left) and company President Eric Spitz. Kushner says a deal with Anaheim wouldn’t affect editorial coverage of Anaheim in any way.

Newspapers are supposed to report on cities. Under this deal, the paper would be working for the city.

Freedom Communications – which owns the Orange County Register – would have an exclusive contract to find a sponsor for Anaheim’s new transportation center.

“The paper’s supposed to be the watchdog on your government and keep things in check," said Tom Tait, Anaheim’s mayor.

He’s known about Freedom’s interest in representing the city for a few months. But he only learned Anaheim signed a letter of intent with the newspaper owner when he got a call from the Voice of OC.

Freedom wouldn’t be paid by the city until it found a sponsor. And the amount is unclear. Tait for one, will not support the arrangement when it is voted on by the city council.

“I don’t think it’s healthy when the local newspaper has a financial interest with the city,” he said.

Jeffrey Brody, a former OC Register reporter who’s now a journalism professor at Cal-State Fullerton, says he’s astounded by the proposal, which he says would violate basic journalism ethics.

“It’s quite unusual," he said. "I’ve never heard of another paper doing this. They’re putting profit over integrity.”

Brody said this proposal is especially concerning, because it comes after a deal with local universities that raised similar questions about newsroom autonomy.

A representative for the Orange County Register said publisher Aaron Kushner was traveling and couldn’t be reached for comment. Kushner has told his newspaper the deal wouldn’t affect editorial coverage of Anaheim.

“If you can't have a business relationship with someone you report on, then we wouldn't have any advertisers in the paper,” he told The Register.

At least one competitor was quick to criticize the proposal.

“We cover cities, we’re not brokers for them," said John Paton, CEO of Digital First Media, which runs the Long Beach Press-Telegram. "I think it speaks volumes about the lack of experience the team at the Orange County Register actually has in our business.”

Editor's note: This story has been changed from an earlier version to correct the university Jeffrey Brody teaches at and to reflect that the Voice of OC was not the first media outlet to report the deal.