Kushner acknowledged that the company would receive a cut of the revenue from any sponsorship deal.
"Effectively, we are acting as an additional source of marketing muscle to try and bring private support to this project because our mission, we believe, is to help Orange County grow," Kushner said. "We believe this is an important project."
Media ethics experts reached for comment said they have never heard of such a deal and said it has the potential to damage the Register newsroom's credibility as it covers the ARTIC project, which has already proven to be controversial.
“It’s just a terrible spot to put them in,” said Al Tompkins, a senior faculty member at The Poynter Institute for Media Studies of the journalists assigned to cover the city and the project. “And the question really does become: are the finances of this type of deal worth the erosion of public confidence that comes with it?”
Marc Cooper, a USC journalism professor who has called foul on past Register controversies, was stunned when told of the deal.
“That's too unbelievable... I would classify this as mind-boggling,” Cooper said after taking a few seconds to collect his thoughts. “It really stretches the imagination.”
On June 20, the Register published an article about a new naming rights broker division and announced contracts with three entities. The article did not say anything about a pending deal with Anaheim, even though the city's letter outlining terms of the deal is dated June 19.
When contacted Thursday evening by a Voice of OC reporter, Kushner said that the paper had yet to report on the deal because "it doesn't exist yet."
Then, later in the evening, the Register published a brief story on its website outlining the deal.
In his defense of the agreement, Kushner stressed that just like with advertisers; there will be a strict firewall between the coverage of ARTIC and the business side of the newspaper.
“We've basically at no cost -- frankly as a public service -- offered to help the city of Anaheim attract one or more major including national or international sponsor to help lower the taxpayer costs of building a great regional transportation hub,” Kushner said. “I don't think there's a single advertiser with us that we don't cover in some way.”
Tait, meanwhile, said the deal could compromise the newspaper's objectivity.
"Not only do I question the need for such an agreement, I have serious concerns about creating a financial partnership with our local newspaper, which also serves as a watchdog for the citizens over matters at City Hall.”
Cooper also said he disagrees with how Kushner defines public service.
"You don't become a booster of Orange County by becoming a partner with institutions of power," Cooper said. "As a newspaper you do it by making the county the most honest, most efficient, most accountable county in the country. And newspapers should be on the frontlines of that. That's the role of a newspaper. Not to be a PR agent.”
This is not the first controversial business move for Kushner since he bought the Register last June.
While gaining praise for adding 175 newsroom staffers and expanding its news content at a time when most papers have been cutting back on coverage, he's been hammered by critics for other business deals and what they say are efforts to appease the political establishment.
Voice of OC revealed in February that the Register changed its political ad policy after two Anaheim councilwomen complained to Register co-owner Eric Spitz earlier this year about ads from a local activist that criticized their votes for a controversial hotel subsidy.
In the wake of that controversy, Kushner raised eyebrows in the media industry when he told newsroom staff that journalists shouldn't abide by the long-held journalism credo of “afflicting the comfortable.”
Then in March, the Los Angeles Times revealed that the paper struck a deal whereby the county’s three main universities each pay the Register $275,000 per year for the paper to publish weekly news sections focused on positive happenings at the colleges.
The arrangement calls for the university’s public relations team to as “content advisors, idea generators and collaborators” on the inserts, according to an internal UC Irvine memo cited by the LA Times.
The Register’s top editor said the arrangement wouldn’t affect its coverage.