The owners of Freedom Communications, the parent company of The Orange County Register, promised "media coverage" as part of their pitch to Anaheim officials to be the naming rights broker for high-profile properties owned by the city, according to a presentation obtained by Voice of OC through the California Public Records Act.
The presentation to city officials lists "media coverage" and "publicity/press" as "tangible benefits"companies could look to in determining the value of placing their names on publicly owned buildings.
“Freedom is the only major media company in Orange County,” read a slide from the "core competency: marketing" section of the presentation. It goes on to tout the Register as part of Freedom Communications' “unrivaled roster of OC-based marketing properties.”
(Click here to see the presentation.)
Disclosure of the presentation follows revelations last week that Freedom and the city are poised to enter into an highly unusual agreement by which the media company would act as the city's naming rights broker for the Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center or ARTIC, the city's new transit center that is under construction.
The presentation shows that Freedom has also pursued a similar deal for the Anaheim Convention Center, although there does not seem to be a pending deal in place for that property.
Critics say the naming rights deal is fraught with possible conflicts and question whether it will affect the Register's ongoing coverage of the nearly $200-million ARTIC project, which has been controversial since it was first proposed. Some critics said the newspaper could be perceived as an "agent of the government" as it reports on the project going forward.
Freedom co-owner and Register publisher Aaron Kushner has defended the deal, saying it should be seen as nothing more than a twist on the traditional advertising model.
Regarding the presentation, Kushner said the Register is not the outlet the presentation slide refers to regarding media coverage. Instead, another division of Freedom Communications would attempt to drum up coverage from media outlets other than the Register, Kushner said.
He used Freedom's rollout this week of its new Long Beach newspaper, the Long Beach Register, as an example of this strategy in action.
“When we launched the Long Beach Register, we can't make a television station cover us. We try to make it compelling. … You try to pack it up so it would be interesting for a third party outlet to pick up,” Kushner said. “This is Freedom [Communications] and very explicitly. They're completely different. The newsroom doesn't provide [public relations] services. That's handled through our communications group.”
It should be noted, however, that the Register published a front-page column by Freedom co-owner Eric Spitz that touted the launch of the Long Beach Register and has published at least four articles on its website since last week regarding the new publication.
One local media observer said the disclosure of the presentation only makes things look worse for Freedom's owners.
“They're not in a position to say we will try and get you good press. They're in the position to say we will give you good press,” said Jon Fleischman, conservative publisher of FlashReport.org and a Voice of OC Community Editorial board member.
“It raises the question as to whether or not they're putting their content up for sale. … If everyone were to follow this model, then soon you wouldn't be able to tell what was genuine news versus arranged news. It would be very difficult."
Under the terms of the pending deal, Freedom would have the exclusive right for 12 months to solicit corporations regarding naming rights for ARTIC, according t a letter of intent from the city.
As for the convention center, which is slated for a $180-million expansion next summer, Kushner said that the building had come up in past talks but noted that isn't in the current proposal. He then accused a Voice of OC reporter of breaching the confidentiality provision of an internal document.
“I'm guessing it says strictly confidential and for internal use only. You're breaching that,” Kushner said.
The document is a public record and was given to Voice of OC in response to a California Public Records Act request.
Dean Starkman, the Columbia Journalism Review assistant editor who wrote an article this week critical of the deal, pointed out that the document doesn't explicitly promise good coverage from the Register. Nonetheless, there is still an appearance of a conflict of interest, he said.
“In this case, you've got a sort of wrinkle. With your left hand business side you're promising favorable coverage, and with the right hand, the news side, you're promising readers impartial coverage,” Starkman said. “And so people go, 'What gives? That doesn't look right.' ”
Fleischman, a conservative Republican who often rails against government spending, said he worries that the newspaper's coverage of large Anaheim projects, which he said is already soft, will be even softer.
He said the Register's coverage of a $319-million Anaheim streetcar project, which would connect Disneyland to ARTIC, has thus far “been occasional and not in-depth.”
“The streetcar goes from the ARTIC Center to Disneyland. You would argue that the streetcar makes ARTIC more valuable, therefore you could now argue that the Register has a business interest” in the streetcar, Fleischman said.