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O.C. Register’s university ad deals pose credibility questions

O.C. Register’s university ad deals pose credibility questions
Some Register staffers have expressed concerns that the schools’ paid sponsorship will blur the line between advertising copy and news stories. But Register Publisher Aaron Kushner said the newspaper would maintain editorial control over the sections.
(Luis Sinco, Los Angeles Times)

Early this year, Orange County Register executives approached officials at three local universities with an offer they couldn’t resist — weekly, six-page sections packed with positive news about their schools.

For $275,000 apiece, UC Irvine, Cal State Fullerton and Chapman University were promised a half-page ad in each of 45 sections over the next year, along with feature stories, events coverage, personality profiles and other light fare produced by Register staffers.

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The schools jumped at what one UCI marketing official called “an exciting new partnership.” In a memo to colleagues, Ria M. Carlson, UCI associate vice chancellor for strategic communications, said that the school’s PR specialists would serve as “content advisors, idea generators and collaborators.”

University officials also liked what they heard in the Register’s pitch.

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“Focus on achievement and success; needs to reflect the excellence of UCI,” is how the newspaper’s written proposal to UCI described the thrust of each week’s main story.

Major media organizations generally avoid making business deals with those they cover to prevent conflicts of interest, and they steer clear of even the appearance of promising only upbeat coverage.

Some Register staffers have expressed concerns — most of them privately for fear of alienating their bosses — that the collaborative effort and the schools’ paid sponsorship of it will undermine the newspaper’s credibility and blur the line between advertising copy and news stories.

Register Publisher Aaron Kushner, whose ownership group 2100 Trust bought the Register last year, said the newspaper would maintain editorial control over the sections, which are set to launch on consecutive weekdays beginning Monday.

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“We are explicit with advertisers that just because they are buying ads that does not give them veto rights or approval rights or control over content,” Kushner said.

He said the new sections, like the newspaper’s other community editions, are for the benefit of subscribers, not advertisers.

“We are launching these sections to tell the tremendously rich and largely untold stories coming from our local universities — places of great importance where meaningful relationships and deeper connections to the community are formed,” Kushner said in a recent Register article about the sections.

Register Editor Ken Brusic said the paper’s reporters and editors “will make all the calls” on what is published in the university sections. The paper’s regular coverage of the schools, including breaking news and watchdog pieces, will continue to appear in daily sections, he said.

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“We are going to cover these places the way we always have,” he said.

Kushner, a former Internet entrepreneur and greeting card company owner who has expressed interest in buying the Los Angeles Times, has bucked newspaper industry trends. At a time when print advertising revenue is shrinking and many publications are paring staff, he has expanded the Register’s coverage and hired dozens of reporters and editors.

His focus on print and his spending have brought national attention as well as questions about whether he can sustain his plan. Recent profiles by OC Weekly and Orange Coast Magazine carried headlines casting him as “The Pied Piper of Print” and “Aaron Quixote.”

Kushner made headlines late last year by pledging $12 million in free advertising to nonprofit organizations selected by the paper’s readers. His latest initiative, pitched to the universities mainly by Register Vice President Steve Churm, offered the same kind of feel-good appeal.

Some Register staffers as well as university employees expressed unease with their new editorial and financial partnership. A few likened the arrangement to an ill-fated 1999 deal between the Los Angeles Times and Staples Center in which the newspaper and the sports-and-entertainment complex agreed to split advertising profits from a Sunday magazine issue devoted to the new venue. Times editorial staffers weren’t informed of the financial arrangement until after the section was published, which sparked a newsroom revolt when revealed.

Jeffrey Brody, a professor of communications at Cal State Fullerton and a former Register reporter, said the Orange County paper’s new sections “are wonderful for the universities” as a way to highlight accomplishments. But he said they also smack of asking news sources to underwrite their own coverage.

“If publishing the sections is dependent upon advertising revenue from the universities, then the Register might as well call itself a newsletter rather than a newspaper,” he said. “If this is the way Publisher Kushner intends to revitalize the newspaper industry, he needs to brush up on journalism ethics and principles.”

Kelly McBride, who heads the ethics faculty at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., a school for professional journalists, said transparency is crucial with these types of arrangements. Sponsored content must be labeled as such, and readers must have a way “to find out the details of the sponsorship,” she said. News organizations also must maintain complete control over what is published, she said.

Each section will carry a staff box noting the Register’s editorial control and that the universities are the primary advertisers, Brusic said.

In a recent article and at an earlier meeting with the newsroom, Register officials said the universities would be primary advertising sponsors of the sections, but did not spell out terms of the agreement.

UCI’s Carlson said she “certainly saw value” in sections that will spotlight campus activities and less popular sports that get little media attention at present.

“We look at it as a marketing opportunity,” she said.

Jeffrey D. Cook, Cal State Fullerton associate vice president for strategic communications, said the new section would highlight his school’s role as “an intellectual and cultural hub” and economic driver.

“The university has been preparing for some time to increase its investment in paid advertising as part of enhanced community-outreach efforts, and the Orange County Register will be one of the forums in which advertising has and will continue to appear,” Cook said.

Mark Woodland, Chapman’s vice president for strategic marketing and communications, said he is “thrilled” by the prospect of Register articles about “outstanding faculty and hidden gems of programs that otherwise wouldn’t get covered.”

Faculty and staff will suggest stories and provide “press material” to the Register, he said, predicting a collegial working relationship.

“Clearly, it’s in the newspaper’s best interest to keep the arrangement hospitable,” he said.

kim.christensen@latimes.com


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