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This spring, readers of the Orange County Register in Southern California started seeing much more coverage of local universities. Less apparent was the fact that the schools were paying for the coverage. Depending on whom you ask, it's either a smart way to bring in revenue, or a serious breach of journalism ethics. From member station KPCC, Ben Bergman reports.

BEN BERGMAN, BYLINE: Earlier this year, Orange County Register executives offered three schools a deal: Pay $275,000, and get a year's worth of weekly sections filled with feel-good features, smiling pictures of students, and guest columns written by faculty. The University of California, Irvine, Chapman University and Cal State Fullerton all signed on. Fullerton chief communications officer Jeff Cook says the proposal seemed almost too good to be true.

JEFF COOK: For me to march into a newspaper and say, you should do a section on our university each week - my past experience is one that would indicate that wouldn't really be an appropriate ask.

BERGMAN: Cook was so excited about the Register's offer that he forked over almost all his department's ad budget. The money comes from fees the public university generates; no taxpayer dollars are used. He says Fullerton's operating budget has been slashed by some $40 million over the past few years, due to state cutbacks. So it's important to attract private donations.

JEFFREY BRODY: Part of the process of connecting with donors, of demonstrating that Cal State Fullerton is an investment worthy, is presenting them with legitimate points of pride about the institution. This would be a case study for my class.

BERGMAN: Jeffrey Brody was a reporter at the Register for a decade before joining Fullerton as a journalism professor. He says many of his former colleagues share his concern about the arrangement, but they're afraid to speak out.

BRODY: When I worked as a journalist, it was clear that journalists should refrain from taking even meals from sources. Now, we have sources paying for entire sections. I mean, it creates an image of impropriety.

BERGMAN: A copy of the contract between The Register and Fullerton, obtained by KPCC, says the university is expected to actively collaborate with the paper on story ideas. It does make clear, though, that the Register retains final authority on story selection and editing in order to preserve credibility. But Brody says the paper's new owner and publisher, Aaron Kushner - who was formerly a greeting card executive - doesn't understand a basic journalism tenet: There should be a firewall between editorial and advertising.

BRODY: I wish I could sit down and talk to with him and explain, you know, some of the traditions of American journalism.

BERGMAN: When we sat down with Kushner, he was unapologetic.

AARON KUSHNER: It's a great service for the community.

BERGMAN: He said the university sections are among the paper's most popular with readers, and the deal with the schools is hardly news.

KUSHNER: Having advertisers in a section that's relevant for both the advertisers and the subscribers, isn't a particularly unique model. That is the newspaper model.

BERGMAN: He says the arrangement is no different than if a car manufacturer took out ads in the auto section.

KUSHNER: Does it color our coverage of those sectors? Not if we're doing our job.

BERGMAN: Media critic Tom Rosenstiel agrees. The executive director of the American Press Institute says he doesn't see a problem with the arrangement as long as the Register is transparent, but he says readers will be the ultimate judge. Do they feel like they're reading press releases or news stories?

TOM ROSENSTIEL: This is all in the execution, you know? Can they do it in a way where they do not harm the credibility and authority of their newsroom?

BERGMAN: Rosenstiel says as all newspapers struggle to survive amid declining ad sales and readership, they will have to be increasingly creative about finding new sources of revenue.

For NPR News, I'm Ben Bergman in Los Angeles.

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