opinion | Bipartisan “local news” sites are dangerous to democracy

(Illustrated by Washington Post staff; The Wayne Herald/Local Report, Will County Gazette/Metric Media, The Michigan Star/Star News Network; iStock.)
(Illustrated by Washington Post staff; The Wayne Herald/Local Report, Will County Gazette/Metric Media, The Michigan Star/Star News Network; iStock.)

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The Michigan Independent isn’t exactly independent. It is also not based in Michigan. The outlet is one of many in a bevy of publications that look like local news sites, complete with old-fashioned fonts and christened names like “Standard,” “Herald,” and “Courant,” but mostly filled with political advocacy run by Super -PACs being funded and other partisan interests. This is a different threat from the foreign interference campaigns that have become the specter of the election, but in some ways there are similar concerns. Our democracy engages in self-sabotage.

Axios recently reported on a cluster of at least 51 sites in key swing states with recent or upcoming elections. These include Arizona, Colorado, Michigan, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin. The sites market themselves as local news and offer some of that – in the form of aggregated content from other sources, in addition to a few original reports on, for example, pleasant hiking destinations or options for family fun in the “spooky season”. But they’re also chock-full of “stories” that will boost Liberal candidates in the upcoming midterms or blow up Conservatives. Sometimes these letters are little more than press releases. “Shapiro busy campaigning and opening offices across Pennsylvania,” reads one headline.

The sites are disguised as community magazines, but their “About Us” pages indicate that they are run by a company called Local Report Inc.; which in turn is embroiled in an opaque “co-publishing agreement” with the American Independent; which in turn is funded by American Bridge — a Democratic super-PAC dedicated to opposition research. NewsGuard, the journalism and technology tool that rates the credibility of online sources, revealed a separate group of American independent websites last month. These include the Arizona Independent, Michigan Independent, Ohio Independent, Pennsylvania Independent and Wisconsin Independent. Print versions, 3.2 million of which Michael Scherer reports are also mailed monthly to select households with ideologically moderate and progressive female voters, are directly controlled by the American Independent.

Another local news salvo from Democrats called CourierNewsroom.com is more or less candid about their mission to “fight back” the right-wing “information warfare.” But the result is the same: political agents wash advocacy over these sites. They use the cachet of local news to bolster readers’ trust, even as true news dwindles across the country.

This media masquerade is neither new nor fake. The American Independent argues that its articles are by authors who produce real stories under their real names, and that their work is fact-checked and verified. This, defenders claim, contrasts with efforts on the right, where stories are robot-generated and sometimes stuffed with made-up quotes — a trend known as “pink slime journalism.” The name is borrowed from a pasty meat by-product added to ground beef sold to unsuspecting consumers in supermarkets. An evaluation of these sites by Columbia Journalism Review researcher Priyanjana Bengani found that non-partisan liberal “local news” sites were dwarfed by their conservative counterparts. The number is staggering: at least 1,100 websites on numerous networks operated by at least five different companies in each state, all of which can be traced back to businessman Brian Timpone through a confusing web of limited liability companies.

These sites, like many of the progressive varieties, tend to claim their mission is to “educate citizens about what’s new in their local communities” or “bring coverage of areas of American life that are underappreciated.” But they were created ahead of the 2020 election to bolster Republican campaigns, and the money behind them comes from Tea Party makers and shakers, among other right-wing donors. Mostly under the umbrella of Metric Media, the conservative networks have had plenty of words touting anti-quarantine sentiment in 2020; The Popular Information Substack located 4,657 articles in Virginia about the dangers of critical race theory ahead of the 2021 gubernatorial election, which Republican Glenn Youngkin won.

As correct as the Democrats might be that Republicans made pink slime first and are doing it worst, that doesn’t mean the right answer is to go low with them. Apologists on both sides of the political spectrum argue that all Outlets are biased these days, even if they don’t admit it – so what’s the difference? But the difference is obvious. People pretty much know what they’re getting when they tune in to Fox News or open an issue of Mother Jones. The primary purpose of these institutions is to make money by publishing news, and they do not profess independence on their behalf. Pink Slime Networks take Money to masquerade as news, and their existence depends on deception. They pretend to be genuine local outlets precisely because people believe that portals rooted in their communities will tell them directly more than those that have sprung up elsewhere.

It’s no coincidence that a similarly slimy strategy is a favorite of opponents like Russia, whose propagandists have hijacked both local and national websites, sometimes to spread untruths and sometimes just to trick readers into attributing them to reliable sources regard. The methods employed by the American Independent, Metric Media and their ilk suck, no matter how much genuine reporting is interspersed with algorithmically generated listicles, hits and press releases. This kind of opaque, black-money-fueled pseudo-journalism does not revitalize local news, as some of its supporters argue, but does the opposite. By masquerading as community-based reporting to manipulate readers, these networks undermine the trust in hometown newspapers that they exploit.

In the end, democracy becomes a double victim. Readers are drawn in without knowing who is paying—or anyone is paying at all. And trust in the seething local news machine continues to dwindle.

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Editorials represent the views of the Washington Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the editorial board based on range of opinion and separate from the newsroom.

Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Associate Editor of Editorial Site Karen Tumulty; Associate Editor of Editorial Page Ruth Marcus; Associate Editor of Editorial Page Jo-Ann Armao (Education, DC Affairs); Jonathan Capehart (national politics); Lee Hockstader (immigration; issues affecting Virginia and Maryland); David E. Hoffman (Global Public Health); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (Economics); Molly Roberts (technology and society); and Stephen Stromberg (Elections, White House, Congress, Legal Affairs, Energy, Environment, Healthcare).

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