In an effort to improve its perception, the Pac-12 in 2018 entered into an agreement with the Los Angeles Times designed for the league to give the major metropolitan newspaper $100,000 in advertising in exchange for increased conference coverage.
This, according to a report from The Oregonian/OregonLive columnist John Canzano, which was released early Thursday morning.
“Literally, in a meeting, our communications people were like, ‘Is there anyone we can pay to write positive stories?’” one Pac-12 staff member told Canzano.
According to Canzano, once the agreement was signed, Andrew Walker, who serves as the Pac-12′s head of communications, moved to help a newly hired reporter, former L.A. Times intern Blake Richardson, gain more access within the Pac-12.
Walker, according to an email from the league obtained by The Oregonian, told Richardson in October 2018, “I can make sure you have all the access and info to become the best Pac-12 reporter out there.”
Furthermore, Walker suggested Richardson could embed with the Cal men’s basketball team on a season-opening trip to China to face Yale in the Pac-12 China Game. Walker also invited Richardson to the conference’s downtown San Francisco headquarters to meet with conference Commissioner Larry Scott and Mark Shuken, head of the Pac-12 Networks. The same access was not promised to reporters from other news outlets.
The mere notion the Pac-12 would pay the Los Angeles Times for coverage brings to the forefront deeply troubling questions of journalistic ethics, something that was not lost on the Times newsroom.
At one point, Times newsroom staffers, concerned with the optics of such an agreement, began questioning the arrangement with then-sports editor Angel Rodriguez. One staffer, an unnamed Pulitzer Prize winner, filed a human resources complaint about the matter.
Another outlet, The Players’ Tribune, which was founded by Derek Jeter in 2014 and focuses on first-person stories by athletes, had a hand in this as well.
Along with the L.A. Times, the Pac-12 sought to use The Players’ Tribune to increase conference coverage on a national scale. That, too, did not go well.
According to Canzano’s report, at least two first-person pieces written by Pac-12 athletes for The Players’ Tribune were not written by the athletes themselves. Rather, the athletes got paid help from St. Louis-based public relations firm FleishmanHilliard.