National media watchdog Columbia Journalism Review this week criticized local mainstream media coverage of the ongoing Angel Stadium negotiations, saying that important scrutiny — particularly of the numbers in the potential deal — has been lacking.

CJR credits Voice of OC with enterprising coverage on the issue.

John Mecklin, a correspondent for the organization’s United States Project, writes this week that the Los Angeles Times and The Orange County Register have given surprisingly light attention to a lease negotiations framework that would give Angels baseball owner Arte Moreno 155 acres of land around the stadium at $1 a year for 66 years.

In return, Moreno would pay for up to $150 million in renovations for the aging stadium — maintenance that the team’s owner is already obligated to do in the current lease — and the city would drop its $600,000 capital contribution. Moreno could also drop “Anaheim” from the team name.

To critics like Mayor Tom Tait, such a deal amounts to a massive giveaway. Estimates of the land value have varied wildly — from $30 million to $380 million — but Tait has argued that the public asset that would be transferred to Moreno could mean billions of dollars for the businessman.

Mencklin largely agrees with that assessment.

“There are ways to calculate the future value of $300 million. My calculations, using an interest rate of 5 percent, compounded annually over the 66 years of the proposed lease, produce a total over that time of about $7.5 billion,” Mecklin wrote. “Perhaps it is time for the media that most directly serve the Anaheim market to tell their readers and viewers what their calculations show.”

Mecklin credits Voice of OC for the first “enterprising” article on the issue, a Sept. 19 piece that attempts to capture the seemingly nebulous full value of the deal.

It was the Voice of OC, a small nonprofit investigative news organization, that presented the first genuinely enterprising coverage of the Angel Stadium lease. The Voice asked the central — and obvious — question raised by the lease negotiating framework in a Sept. 19 article headlined, “What is the Actual Value of the Angel Stadium Deal?” The story, written by Adam Elmahrek, acknowledged the difficulty of placing a value on the stadium and the land surrounding it, given the uncertainty about details of any deal, including what, if any, taxes might be rebated to a developer over the years. But at least the piece began to put parameters on the size of benefit being offered to the owner of the Angels, citing two city studies estimating the value of the land at somewhere between $30 million and $380 million.

The Register’s Martin Wisckol has also published a series of articles deconstructing the city’s basic arguments for dealing generously with the Angels, including a dubious economic impact report, on the current responsibility for stadium maintenance, and most recently the slim chance the Angels have for finding a new home in Southern California.

More from Macklin’s piece:

Judging from the initial coverage the Orange County Register and the Los Angeles Times gave to it, an agreement on the outline of negotiations for a new long-term lease of Angel Stadium might have been just another routine item on an Anaheim City Council meeting agenda.

Register reporter Art Marroquin’s story on a framework for lease negotiations — which the council approved early in September on a 4-1 vote — was dutiful, bland, and short. His piece focused on the city’s agreement to give Arte Moreno, owner of the Angels professional baseball franchise, an extension of three years before he must decide whether to opt out of the current lease and move the team. A city consultant said the Angels would be “impulsive and difficult to negotiate with” if the extension weren’t granted, Marroquin wrote.

The Times’ Bill Shaikin offered up an even more pro forma account noting that the same consultant told the City Council that Moreno “has emphasized he has the means to move the team elsewhere” if negotiations aren’t fruitful. Shaikin reported that Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait opposed the two memorandums of understanding approved by the council but did not quote or paraphrase him as to why.

The Times and Register articles mentioned, but otherwise made very little of a rather startling starting point for stadium negotiations: The city would lease 155 acres surrounding the stadium to Moreno and his companies for 66 years — at $1 per year. In exchange, Moreno would update the stadium, or maybe build a new one, and develop the parking lots around it in some way. Neither story even raised the question of the potentially enormous economic value of the long-term use of the real estate in question. (Nearly two months later, the Register did explore this question in a substantial piece — more on that to come).

Four days after the negotiating agreement was approved, the Times, in a journalistically unusual move, published an opinion column by Shaikin, who covers professional baseball on and off the field for the paper. Shaikin’s column argued in favor of the $1-per-year, 66-year lease. Without providing much in the way of financial information to support his position, he concluded that, because the land surrounding the stadium had not been developed in recent decades, “this is as good as it gets for Anaheim.”

Tait — a lawyer with an MBA — has a different view, to say the least. In an interview early in November, he called the memorandums of understanding “shocking” and “outrageous.” “I don’t know of a larger municipal giveaway,” he said, suggesting that the property in question has a conservative value of hundreds of millions of dollars. And he said that when he describes the negotiating agreements to constituents, “they are saying, `Why don’t more people know about this?’ ”

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