And the Register/Anaheim deal is certainly different in a fundamental respect from the LA Times/Staples Center scandal, in which the paper agreed to share revenue from a special issue of its magazine. In that case the editorial content of the magazine, at least, was clearly implicated.
On its face, this deal is as Kushner says it is: It’s a business-side arrangement that can be insulated from the newsroom. One could say, “well, the proof will be in the coverage,” and leave it at that. If the Register puts its best reporter on the transportation beat, and she comes up with great stories, then the conflict of interest could be said to have been successfully managed.
But there are a few problems:
1. This is not just any partner, but the city, the main thing the Register is supposed to cover.
2. 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.
3. Even if the transit hub’s construction and operation are scandal-free from now on, readers can never be sure the coverage was uncompromised because they’ll never know what the Register didn’t report. The appearance problem is a problem.
4. 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 put up its own story that night. Kusher 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.
Kushner says this deal can work. I would like it to work.
But it doesn’t.