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For the past couple of months, without your (in most cases) knowing about it, the Orange County Register has been in formal negotiations with the City of Anaheim over becoming the city’s broker to find one or more corporate sponsors to name the taxpayer funded ARTIC transit station — or, as we may perhaps someday call it thanks to them, the “Chevron Oil Presents the Sam’s Club Rapid Transit Station of Anaheim,” or “Chevron Sam’s of Anaheim” for short — a deal on which the Register would surely make an as-yet-unenumerated hunk of sweet middleman cash.
If you don’t think that this arrangement would have the capacity to skew the Register’s reporting about Anaheim politics, ARTIC, and the people on the Council who stand to approve any proposal brokered by the Register if they’re to make any money during the year allotted to them — then you probably either work for the Register, for the City of Anaheim, or for the Curt Pringle-Chamber of Commerce-Disney that grips the lobes of the city. If not, and you still think that this is hunky-dory, then you’re absolutely adorable.
This is what the Register — only today, three days short of two months after the letter of intent was signed — has to say in its report on the deal:
Published: Aug. 15, 2013 Updated: 8:18 p.m.
Freedom, Anaheim in talks over hub naming rights
The parent company of the Register may seek a sponsor who would pay for the naming rights on a transportation hub.
By ART MARROQUIN / ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
ANAHEIM – Freedom Communications, the parent company of the Orange County Register, is negotiating an exclusive contract with the city of Anaheim that would allow Freedom to seek out a corporate sponsor for a transportation hub under construction near Angel Stadium, the company’s owner said Thursday.
If an agreement is reached, Freedom would not be paid unless it finds a sponsor that suited city officials for the new Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center, also known as ARTIC, said Aaron Kushner, CEO …
Then, of course, the story disappears behind a paywall, and to hell with them. We can just read the Voice of OC, now conveniently linked in the Other Blogs We Like sidebar because they can’t fix their RSS feed. They sure can report up a storm, though.
OC Register Set to be Anaheim’s Corporate Sponsorship Broker
Posted: Thursday, August 15, 2013 8:15 pm | Updated: 11:06 pm, Thu Aug 15, 2013.
By ADAM ELMAHREK and NICK GERDA
Freedom Communications, owner of the Orange County Register, is poised to strike a highly unusual partnership with the city of Anaheim whereby the media company would be the city’s broker as it pursues corporate sponsorships for its controversial transportation hub project.
News of the deal has drawn criticism from Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait, and warnings from media ethics experts that the county’s largest newspaper could be seen as an “agent of the government.”
Freedom Communications co-owner and OC Register publisher Aaron Kushner defended the arrangement as just a new twist to traditional advertising sponsorships and speaks to the media company’s commitment to the region’s future.
Freedom Communications would have the exclusive right for 12 months to solicit corporations for the opportunity to display their names on the Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center (ARTIC), a massive dome that would house the city’s train station, a letter of intent from the city states.
You should definitely check out that link there at the bottom to see what the Letter of Intent says. Note: this is not a relatively easily ignored “we will pay you $3000 and you will run an ad for our discount warehouse, so don’t report on our sweatshop conditions or we’ll give our next ad to the Daily Pilot” sort of deal, whatever Aaron Kushner thinks. This is more along the lines of the following:
(1) “You will work for the next year to broker the best corporate naming rights deal for this rapid transit station, of which you will get a nice healthy percentage”; and
(2) “This deal is controversial, but bear in mind that to the extent that your writers criticize itit, let along seek out or (worse) discover any shadiness about it, the value of the naming deal goes down — along with how much you stand to make off of it”; and
(3) “Oh, and by the way, after you’ve done all that work during the year you get an exclusive right to broker the deal, the City Council still has the right to accept or reject your proposed deals — or to let your exclusive contract lapse”; and
(4) “Your exclusive contract will expire a couple of weeks after the primary election, during which time Anaheim’s Charter Review Commission proposal will be on the ballot as well as votes on changing from at-large to district elections — not that you should necessarily let that bother you as you decide how to structure your coverage of those elections.”
You know — it’s that kind of deal. An unprecedented deal. An ethically tone-deaf deal. A deal that should require the Register to recuse itself from covering Anaheim city politics altogether next year — because, now that it’s going into the brokering business, it has to keep the customer satisfied!
Whatever the Register stands to make on its brand spanking new business enterprise, it’s not worth what it stands to lose in prestige and respect. If it’s failing to cover the many scandals of its client, the Anaheim City Council majority, at a time when it’s trying to suck up to the Council members to get them to approve its proposed deal as a broker – while the Voice and the Weekly and pissant little blogs like ours create a big enough ruckus to bring in the LA Times and the Washington Post and the New York Times and the increasingly attention local TV and radio venues — then it is going to get pulled into those scandals as a participant, and there goes all of that wonderful innovation it has been trying.
This is not garden-variety corporate stupidity. This is florid, corpse-flower-level, corporate stupidity.
After making the rounds of journalism professors with this news — and I can’t resist quoting the quotes they got:
“It’s just a terrible spot to put them in,” said Al Tompkins, a senior faculty member at The Poynter Institute for Media Studies, of the journalists assigned to cover the city and the project. “And the question really does become: are the finances of this type of deal worth the erosion of public confidence that comes with it?
Marc Cooper, a USC journalism professor who has called foul on past Register controversies, was stunned when told of the arrangement.
“That’s too unbelievable… I would classify this as mind-boggling,” Cooper said after taking a few seconds to collect his thoughts. “It really stretches the imagination.”
“You don’t become a booster of Orange County by becoming a partner with institutions of power,” Cooper said. “As a newspaper you do it by making the county the most honest, most efficient, most accountable county in the country. And newspapers should be on the frontlines of that. That’s the role of a newspaper. Not to be a PR agent.”
Yeah, well — as Kushner told newsroom staff earlier this year — he thinks that journalists shouldn’t abide by the long-held journalism credo of “afflicting the comfortable.” (The Voice links to some nice commentary from the media industry on that point.) There, we can say, he is apparently keeping his word. He also denies that any news or editorial writing would be affected by these arrangements. There … well, what can we say?
Of course, one could suppose that the blithe assertions that the Register can handle the pressure from clients while still doing its job of doing whatever it does to the comfortable are true. There’s reason to doubt this, though. As the Voice did, you can ask Jason Young about that.
(Disclosure: I’ve done some commercial legal work for Jason Young that has nothing to do with the Register or county politics. My financial stake in it is minor compared to other cases. Most of our interactions, though, have been about the woeful state of affairs in Anaheim, in exchange for interest in which both of us take a financial loss. At least I do — and I presume that he does as well.)
Young’s “Save Anaheim” blog, often linked to in these pages, had been purchasing ads in the Register to criticize the actions of the Anaheim City Council members behind the $158 million “GardenWalk Giveaway” deal. Then, this past February, the Register announced another “innovative” new policy: it changed its political ad policy to reject ads critical of political figures by name (or something like that) after receiving complaints from Councilwomen Kris Murray and Gail Eastman about how they were being treated meanly with respect to the Giveaway.
As one might do when counting backwards to determine the date of conception from the date of birth, one can estimate what else was going on between the Register and Anaheim around this time. This letter of intent on the ARTIC naming rights brokering deal was dated June 19. It probably took a few months to gestate its way through the negotiation process before it was finally signed. So either before, during, or at least not long after the time that the Register decided to bend journalistic precedent by stifling access of those wishing to take out ads on local issues within its pages, the Register was initiating a proposal with Anaheim to set up this brokering agreement.
Young is convinced — and has said openly in the Voice‘s articles — that the decision to create a new ad policy was the result of pressure by Murray and Eastman. Now another possibility emerges. Maybe it wasn’t just pressure — but the fact that you don’t want to piss off a customer when you’re about to try to make a sale.
It’s hard to say at this point. I will say one thing, though, to the Register‘s Display Ads department:
You may be getting an unexpected ad something soon. Think twice before you reject it. People are watching you now — now more than ever.