This story has been corrected in order to better reflect the stipulations of the contract (12/12) and to include a response from the Orange County Register (12/13).
In February, Cal State Fullerton agreed to pay the Orange County Register $275,000 to publish a weekly, six-page “feature-oriented editorial package.”
The purpose of the CSUF section is to tell “the story of impact and importance of CSUF in the greater Orange County market,” according to the contract between CSUF and the Register.
Each issue of the print edition carries a disclosure in the masthead of the paper reading:
“The Cal State Fullerton community section is conceived and produced by the news staff of the Orange County Register for the benefit of its subscribers. While the university is the section’s primary advertising sponsor, all editorial decisions are independent of the university’s control.”
However, emails obtained by the Daily Titan have revealed that the university section may not be as free of influence from CSUF as the disclosure leads readers to believe.
“Cal State Fullerton is paying for ads that appear in the section—nothing more” said Cal State Fullerton’s Senior Communications Officer Paula Selleck.
Selleck said the university was not dictating the content of the section, but “if we were dictating the content of that section we would indeed be paying for coverage,” Selleck said.
But according to an email obtained by the Daily Titan, Selleck has attempted, on behalf of Cal State Fullerton, to exercise some editorial control over what gets published in the university section.
In an email she sent to Diane Witmer, Ph.D., chair of the Communications Department, Selleck was assisting a Register reporter on a then-developing story “in a way that won’t adversely affect the university.”
The reporter sent a mass email to professors asking for “funny and creative excuses” that students have told their professors about why they did not complete assignments. The reporter asked for examples of students trying to get “sympathy, remorse or a free pass.”
“Our strategy is to help collect examples that tell the story in the way we’d like to see it told, if the feature or package is to move forward,” Selleck said. “As you can imagine, we’re not interested in forwarding examples that portray students as lazy or liars or worse … ”
Selleck also asked Witmer if she could approach “friendlies” on behalf of media relations who might be willing to work on it.
“Rather than referring the reporter to selected faculty members, we’d prefer the examples be sent to our office, so we can screen them and/or work with faculty members to craft a few lines of description to do the deed,” Selleck said.
The story, titled “Cal State Fullerton professors share common excuses,” was ultimately published.
A report by Jeff Sonderman and Millie Tran of the American Press Institute—a Virginia-based nonprofit—defines sponsored content to be “content that takes the same form and qualities of a publisher’s original content” and “usually serves useful or entertaining information as a way of favorably influencing the perception of the sponsor brand.”
According to a March 12 news release from the Register, “The university sections will mirror the design, graphics and storytelling style seen in the Register’s community newspaper portfolio.”
Sonderman sees two main issues that sponsored content must face regarding credibility.
The first is to make sure it is clear to the readers the extent of the university’s involvement in the sponsored section.
“I believe sponsored content disclosures should tell readers not only that the content is sponsored, but should also be specific about what that means,” Sonderman said. “Exactly what influence and involvement does the sponsor have in shaping the content?”
Sonderman raised concerns about whether or not the Register would hold sponsored content to the same standards as its normal content.
“Is it produced by the same news staff, or a different one? All those levels of detail help a reader truly understand what they’re getting here,” he said.
The second credibility factor Sonderman sees is whether the Register’s “news coverage of the university could be restrained or prejudiced by the fact that the university is now a business partner.”
This is a general point of concern with any advertiser who is also a news subject or source.
“But in this case, it’s worth noting especially,” Sonderman said.
Sonderman questioned whether Register reporters or editors will feel differently now about covering a potential front-page hard news story about the university “while other staffers are being paid to write positive stories in a special section inside the paper.”
“One would hope not, but the potential for that must be acknowledged and dealt with,” Sonderman said.
The service order specifies that CSUF agrees to be the main sponsor for the half-page broadsheet advertisement in every weekly section.
According to the contract between the Register and CSUF, the $275,000 paid for 12 months of a “weekly 6-page Broadsheet Insertion for county-wide distribution.”
The Register also launched university sections at UC Irvine and Chapman University.
The money to fund the CSUF section came from revenue derived from special funds “such as parking and housing, as well as revenue from the university’s auxiliaries, which are pooled into an account used for university administrative costs,” Cal State Fullerton Chief Communications Officer Jeffrey D. Cook said.
A stipulation in the service order states that the university is to “actively collaborate with OCR (the Register) on story ideas, student and college departmental relationship facilitation and public information office cooperation.”
“So however they might parse the words of what they think they’re paying for, they are basically writing a check that results in a weekly special section of news that they are involved in shaping and that exists only because of this agreement,” Sonderman said.
“That’s clearly different than just buying a half-page ad in the normal newspaper sections.”
While the Register is supposed to maintain editorial control, university section editor Thomas Martinez has sometimes asked Selleck to decide which column to run.
In one email exchange, Martinez asked Selleck to rewrite a sentence in President Mildred García’s first “Titan Voices” column.
“Could you rewrite the first part of this sentence to make it easier to understand?” Martinez asked.
The sentence that Selleck suggested was ultimately published.
The collaboration between the university and the Register includes Register writers pitching story ideas to the university, the university pitching story ideas and column ideas to the writers and coordinating on when certain content, such as columns, is published.
“I think any arrangement where a university or other entity pays the paper to create a special about the university and influences the story selection and perhaps even the wording is a breach of editorial integrity and independence,” said Thomas Clanin, a communications professor who teaches Media Ethics.
Clanin said he was unsure what benefits the university would gain from the special section, other than increasing their brand awareness.
“The Daily Titan this week had a good story on the ‘D’ rating at the Gastronome, do you really think that would be appearing in the Register’s Cal State Fullerton’s section?” he said. “I don’t think so.”
The contract between CSUF and the Register outlines eight points that the Register agrees to and two that CSUF agrees to.
The agreements include, in addition to those previously mentioned, that the university sections employ a dedicated editorial staff to produce the weekly sections and work with student journalists “where appropriate.”
The Register did contact the Daily Titan during the spring 2013 semester regarding collaboration. The Daily Titan responded, but the Register has not contacted the staff further.
However, students who are not affiliated with the Daily Titan have had stories published.
The Daily Titan reached out to Ken Brusic, the editor of the Register, Thomas Martinez, the editor of the CSUF section and to Customer Service at the Register for comment. Steve Green, Team Leader for Local Content at the Register, fielded the questions on behalf of customer service, Brusic and Martinez. He rejected the idea that the relationship could compromise the ability of the Register to cover Cal State Fullerton.