Making news

Water district taps Google for good coverage
Central Basin pays for positive stories by a firm that Google considers a news site. Officials call it innovation, but open government advocates fear it blurs the line between news and publicity.

Readers who type “Central Basin Municipal Water District” into Google News get a series of upbeat articles.

One story hails the benefits of Central Basin’s new recycled water system. Another piece praises the agency’s legal battle over groundwater rights. Others catalog the successes of its conservation programs.

What the average reader doesn’t know is that Central Basin is paying nearly $200,000 in taxpayer money for the glowing coverage. In a highly unusual move, the water district hired a consultant to produce promotional stories “written in the image of real news,” according to agreements reviewed by The Times.

The articles appear on a professional-looking news website called News Hawks Review. The site is indexed on Google News, carries its own advertisements and boasts an “experienced and highly knowledgeable” staff of editors and reporters. But records show it is directly affiliated with a corporate communications firm under contract with Central Basin.


Valerie Howard, the district’s public affairs manager, said the news stories have resulted in a “huge spike” in traffic to Central Basin’s main website and proved far more effective than traditional press releases.

But open government advocates said the district is blurring the line between promotion and real news.


The water district, a public agency that serves more than 2 million residents in southeast Los Angeles County, hired Coghlan Consulting Group to lead its news division in November. Under the agreement, Central Basin pays $11,500 to the firm each month in exchange for four news stories and other promotional services. The deal was extended in April.

“All of us know that getting positive news coverage about the agency is a very difficult challenge,” the firm’s principal, Ed Coghlan, wrote in a letter to the district describing the service. “The solution? How about our own news outlet.”

Because News Hawks is labeled a news channel by Google, Coghlan wrote, Central Basin’s “communication efforts” would “show up as news stories … on the Internet.”

It remains unclear exactly who writes the stories. Coghlan said in his agreement with Central Basin that the site was “a member” of his company, but News Hawks is actually registered to his associate, Anthony Marino. In a brief interview, Marino said he alone manages the site and that Coghlan has no editorial control. Coghlan did not respond to interview requests.

When you read a news story wouldn’t you consider it an important piece of information that the reporter is working for the subject of the story?

If David Axelrod writes a column you know to filter what he says because he works for Barack Obama. The same thing for Karl Rove and the Republican party.

But when somebody who claims to be independent is secretly being paid to manipulate opinions, that might not be criminal but it’s dishonest and sleazy.

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12 Responses to Making news

  1. Dario says:

    When someone shows me that Germany has fewer regulations than the U.S., I’ll believe that it’s regulations that’s stopping companies from investing in the U.S.

    Barrons: GE: Obama’s Jobs Czar Investing Big to Boost Hiring – in Germany!

    General Electric (GE) is putting $118 million to work ramping up the company’s business in Germany, building a new innovation center in the country and hiring 450 people, Bloomberg reported. GE is also undertaking a marketing campaign to curry favor with the locals, proclaiming “We are the GE in Germany.”
    The company says that having a strong base in GE allows it to sell its products more effectively throughout Europe.

  2. jjmtacoma says:

    It isn’t criminal? Not that anyone would press charges.

  3. yttik says:

    Something similar is happening here on a much smaller scale. Our water district is spending money on public relations. People are like, WTH? Either the water is good to drink or it isn’t. We don’t really want to pay higher bills so you can run ads telling us you care and that you’re good people. They even have bumper stickers and tee shirts, “support your water district!” I have indoor plumbing and I pay a bill every month, what do you mean, support your water district? But naturally there are now great sums of money involved and politics at play, so they need positive press and they’re willing to pay for it.

  4. Dario says:

    Public relations are important for water departments because if you don’t like the water department you might switch your tap water supply to another department. (snark)

  5. DeniseVB says:

    WH won’t compromise on the Jobs Plan ? Huh?

    Do nothing Congress? Riiiiight.

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