The Columbia Journalism Review, the nation’s leading media watchdog publication, Monday criticized a pending deal between The Orange County Register’s ownership with the city of Anaheim whereby the media company would be the city’s corporate sponsorships broker on a controversial transportation hub, saying the business partnership is problematic.

Under the terms of the deal, revealed last week by Voice of OC, Register owner Freedom Communications would have the exclusive right for 12 months to solicit corporations regarding naming rights for the Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center or ARTIC, a nearly $200-million structure that would house the city’s train station, a letter of intent from the city states.

In order for the deal to take effect, the City Council must approve it.

The Review’s assistant managing editor, Dean Starkman, lauded Freedom’s new ownership for trying “the most interesting and important experiment in journalism right now” to revive print media by reinvesting in the newsroom, raising prices and implementing a strict pay wall for the Register’s website.

But Starkman also took aim at Freedom co-owner and Register Publisher Aaron Kushner’s argument that just as with traditional advertising arrangements, there will be a strict firewall between the newsroom and the business of securing naming rights for the transit building.

Starkman laid out four arguments:

  • This is not just any partner but the city, the main entity the Register is supposed to cover.
  • The 12-month deal provides the media company with a clear and ongoing disincentive to cover the transit center aggressively, and the project, still under construction, has already been controversial. That’s unusual.
  • Even if the transit hub’s construction and operation are scandal-free from now on, readers can never be sure the coverage was not compromised, because they’ll never know what the Register didn’t report. The appearance problem is a problem.
  • The Register has already been beaten once on this story. After the Voice of OC called them on Thursday about the deal with the city, the Register published its own story that night. Kushner told the Voice of OC his own paper didn’t write about the deal because “it doesn’t exist yet.”

This last bit sounds worse than it is, since the business side wouldn’t necessary share its pending deals with its newsroom, nor should it always be expected to. But still, the Register needs to lead on the coverage, and it’s already been caught flatfooted.

Clarification: A previous version of this post stated that Freedom Communications has struck a deal with the city of Anaheim regarding naming rights of the Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center. While the deal is pending, it will not be official until approved by the Anaheim City Council.

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