Readers who type "Central Basin Municipal Water District" into Google News get a series of upbeat articles.
One story hails the benefits of Central Basin's new recycled water system. Another piece praises the agency's legal battle over groundwater rights. Others catalog the successes of its conservation programs.
What the average reader doesn't know is that Central Basin is paying nearly $200,000 in taxpayer money for the glowing coverage. In a highly unusual move, the water district hired a consultant to produce promotional stories "written in the image of real news," according to agreements reviewed by The Times.
The articles appear on a professional-looking news website called News Hawks Review. The site is indexed on Google News, carries its own advertisements and boasts an "experienced and highly knowledgeable" staff of editors and reporters. But records show it is directly affiliated with a corporate communications firm under contract with Central Basin.
It's fairly common for celebrities and private-sector businesses to game search engines to generate positive buzz or better sales. But Web experts said they had never heard of a public entity employing such a strategy to increase its visibility online. They also question whether Google would continue to classify News Hawks Review as a "news channel" if it knew the articles were paid for by the district.
District officials have portrayed the arrangement as innovative, noting that people who type "water conservation," or "recycled water" on Google News are now more likely to find stories about Central Basin.
Valerie Howard, the district's public affairs manager, said the news stories have resulted in a "huge spike" in traffic to Central Basin's main website and proved far more effective than traditional press releases.
But open government advocates said the district is blurring the line between promotion and real news.
"This is a serious breach of the public trust," said Terry Francke, general counsel of Californians Aware. "If it was known and approved by the board, it could be interpreted as the use of $200,000 of taxpayer funds as a self-promotion to help them stay in office."
Some people quoted by News Hawks Review said they were unaware of its relationship with the water district.
Bell Gardens City Council member Pedro Aceituno thought he was being interviewed by a regular reporter when he spoke to News Hawks in July for a story titled: "Local Elected Officials Praise Central Basin Lawsuit vs. WRD."
"I'm surprised," Aceituno said after a Times reporter explained the contract agreement. "They should say who they're with, especially if it's not an independent view."
The water district, a public agency that serves more than 2 million residents in southeast Los Angeles County, hired Coghlan Consulting Group to lead its news division in November. Under the agreement, Central Basin pays $11,500 to the firm each month in exchange for four news stories and other promotional services. The deal was extended in April.
"All of us know that getting positive news coverage about the agency is a very difficult challenge," the firm's principal, Ed Coghlan, wrote in a letter to the district describing the service. "The solution? How about our own news outlet."
Because News Hawks is labeled a news channel by Google, Coghlan wrote, Central Basin's "communication efforts" would "show up as news stories … on the Internet."
It remains unclear exactly who writes the stories. Coghlan said in his agreement with Central Basin that the site was "a member" of his company, but News Hawks is actually registered to his associate, Anthony Marino. In a brief interview, Marino said he alone manages the site and that Coghlan has no editorial control. Coghlan did not respond to interview requests.
Central Basin officials were pleased with the results. When the district extended the News Hawks contract in April, Howard wrote in a memo that "no other California water agency is using online media tools in this way."
She said in an interview last week that she didn't consider the website misleading and believed the News Hawks coverage has been fair.
Howard also said the district has been fighting what she described as inaccurate stories in the news media as well as on a blog called centralbasin.net, which has been chronicling criticism of the water district. That website is operated by the Water Replenishment District of Southern California, a separate water agency that Central Basin has been battling in court. It is not a news site.
Central Basin has been the subject of negative press coverage in the last year. Los Angeles County prosecutors are investigating travel expenses the district paid for its elected board members and their spouses. The Times reported in June on contracts totaling more than $2 million the district awarded to a nonprofit run by George Cole, a former Bell city councilman charged with public corruption. And in recent months some local politicians have called for a state audit of Central Basin's finances.
Businesses have long tried to steer readers toward positive coverage and away from negative articles online. Danny Sullivan, a search engine expert based in Orange County, said Google News can significantly increase the visibility of a story or website because of its popularity and the relatively small number of sites included in its index.
But Google generally frowns on efforts to disguise public relations as independent news, Sullivan said, adding that if Google examined News Hawks Review more closely it could withdraw the news label. He cited a recent investigation in which the Federal Trade Commission shut down a group of fake news websites designed to promote acai berries.
In that case, federal regulators concluded that sites that appeared to belong to legitimate news-gathering organizations were in reality enticing consumers to buy acai berry weight-loss products.
"Clearly the FTC doesn't like the idea of these types of news sites," Sullivan said. "If you can get into Google News then you really have the ability to influence what people are going to see."