The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How ‘pink slime’ journalism exploits our faith in local news

The disappearance of local news outlets has been weaponized by partisan interests

Though local newspapers are more trusted than national news outlets, polls show, they're rapidly shrinking or disappearing. (kmaassrock/Getty Images/iStockphoto)
correction

A previous version of this article incorrectly said that Brian Timpone and Dan Proft connected through the Illinois Policy Institute. The article has been corrected.

The 17th-century word “courant,” which once meant “newspaper,” is obsolete, according to Merriam-Webster, except in the rare case of the title of a periodical. Papers with that moniker in their masthead got grandfathered in because they were founded hundreds of years ago. Hearing something called “courant” today, I imagine a time-tested media institution anchored in a specific city or region, such as Connecticut’s Hartford Courant, which is a decade older than the United States government.

At first glance, the Mobile Courant, the site covering my home city of Mobile, Ala., has all the trappings of a traditional community news portal like Hartford’s. It’s got the old-timey-sounding name and familiar sections dedicated to local government, business, real estate and sports.

But that’s a smokescreen. The Mobile Courant not only lacks real-life reporters and editors, but the articles are regurgitated news releases. Clicking on the Politics section directs the reader to word-for-word releases straight from the desk of Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville: “Tuberville Meets with President Biden’s Supreme Court Nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson,” for example, or “Tuberville Veterans Bill Passes U.S. Senate.” Below this, you’ll find a steady stream of Federal Election Commission notifications about individual donations to various Republican politicians, the dull text seemingly optimized for search engines rather than human consumption.

That Democrats don’t seem to exist in the Courant’s world is a feature, not a bug. The Courant is merely one of dozens of networked sites mass-produced by the digital news company Metric Media since 2019. It’s part of a growing right-wing propaganda project cosplaying as a network of nonpartisan local newspapers.

The answer to the media industry’s woes? Publicly owned newspapers.

Ten years ago, I coined the term “pink-slime journalism” to describe the sneaky way companies like Metric Media exploit Americans’ lingering trust in local newspapers to peddle an inferior product. The term is a reference to the controversial paste-like meat byproduct that was, according to reports at the time, supposedly being added to ground beef on supermarket shelves without a label. If the yellow journalism of the 19th century can be defined by the sensationalistic “if it bleeds, it leads” mentality, pink slime is the opposite. It wants to quietly smuggle low-quality pastel goo from a machine into your regular media diet.

Faith in journalism in the age of “fake news” and algorithm-driven misinformation keeps dropping, but polls show that local news is still relatively well-regarded. According to a 2019 Knight Foundation survey, local outlets are more trusted than national organizations by a wide margin — 45 to 31 percent. It’s probably because local news focuses on issues that tend to be nonpartisan: weather, sports, obituaries, local elections. And the staff members are your neighbors and members of your community.

But maybe not for long. As local outlets have disappeared, many have been replaced by algorithmically managed pink-slime outlets that use the good will earned by news institutions of yore to help push political agendas from outside those communities. I know how the sausage is made, because I worked in the proverbial slaughterhouse of Metric Media’s predecessor in the early 2010s. Journatic was a start-up company that borrowed the buzzword-heavy language of Silicon Valley to obfuscate the fact that it wasn’t reinventing newspapers — it was merely disrupting the high cost of labor in the name of saving the industry from bankruptcy.

Poorly paid freelancers replaced staff reporters who had made living wages at newspapers like the Chicago Tribune. Part of my job was to write local news stories for the Houston Chronicle — even though I lived in Chicago — and select fake American-sounding bylines for stories written in virtual sweatshops in the Philippines. A Filipino writer named Junbe, for instance, might be renamed Jimmy Finkel, thanks to a built-in drop-down menu, and Gisele Bautista could instantly become Jenni Cox. These “reporters” earned pennies per story, and much of the content was plagiarized. “It would pay off to have you both write and edit these stories only if you could write the stories in about 90 seconds,” my remote supervisor told me.

The ugly future of corporate media

In June 2012, I collaborated with public-radio reporter Sarah Koenig on an episode of “This American Life” to blow the whistle on Journatic’s shady tactics. The fallout was instant: The Chicago Tribune and others suspended Journatic or ended their contracts. But Journatic’s canny chief executive, Brian Timpone, didn’t fold; he went underground — rebranding the company multiple times in the process.

A few years ago, Timpone switched gears after hooking up with conservative pundit Dan Proft. The pair began building a mini media empire that intentionally put a conservative slant on backyard journalism — the Sinclair Broadcast Group of local newspapers. (Timpone and Proft did not respond to requests for comment sent by email.)

That mission is accomplished if you look at the sheer numbers. Metric Media boasts that it publishes “over 5 million news articles every month” and claims to be “the largest producer of local news in the United States.” A 2020 New York Times investigation pegged 1,300 news sites with Timpone’s fingerprints on them — far outnumbering those of Gannett, the nation’s largest newspaper chain. But because it’s pink-slime journalism, it’s not all under one banner. Many have been laundered through a web of networks with vague names such as LGIS News Service, the Business Journals and Newsinator.

Quantity trumps quality. Nothing written by pink-slime journalism sites will win a Pultizer Prize, but sometimes one of its thousands of articles about a right-wing talking point manages to go viral. That’s certainly true of articles about “critical race theory” and public schools’ alleged “wokeness.”

Most notoriously, an article from a Chicago-based pink-slime site published in May went viral on social media, especially in right-wing circles, because it claimed that suburban school administrators were implementing race-based grading. The article prompted school officials in Oak Park, Ill., to release a statement calling the report “not true,” but days after the story was proved false, right-wing outlets such as One America News were still reporting it as fact.

The Oak Park case is unusual in that it broke through nationally, but it’s not an exceptional incident. A study published by the Popular Information Substack found that 28 pink-slime sites in Virginia published 4,657 articles about critical race theory in schools between January and November 2021 — many of which contained unverified or false information — just in time for the election of Republican Glenn Youngkin, who rode a wave of anti-CRT sentiment to win the governor’s race. It’s difficult to say whether these stories are helping drive the trend or merely mirroring it, but it’s clear that they speak to a partisan political pattern that has little to do with what’s happening on the ground in this or that local community.

Every week, two more newspapers close — and ‘news deserts’ grow larger

As it happens, pink slime’s obsession with liberal ideology in public schools aligns with one of Timpone’s pet peeves. In 2017, he loudly took his kids out of an affluent suburban Chicago public school because of an initiative to hire more non-White teachers. “This is a small group of left-wing activists that want to push their social engineering on the rest of the community,” he said. “They’re sending teachers to indoctrination camps led by race-hustling consultants.”

The response from Democrats has been lackluster. Andrew Yang was the only Democratic presidential candidate in 2020 to make local news subsidies a plank of his campaign, and he’s no longer a Democrat. During that same election cycle, ACRONYM, the left-of-center media nonprofit behind Shadow Inc. — a tech start-up that flubbed the results of the 2020 Iowa caucuses with a glitchy app (and has since rebranded as Bluelink) — funneled $1.4 million into Courier Newsroom, a media company running eight pro-Democratic news websites in key swing states that appear to be respectable local papers with folksy names like Arizona’s Copper Courier and the Keystone in Pennsylvania. Articles such as “Sinema, Kelly, Join Bipartisan Group of Senators on Historic Gun Reform Proposal” and “Phoenix Lawyer Known for Defending Election Integrity, Invest in Ed, Nominated to 9th Circuit” — both written by an undergrad at Arizona State — read like glorified ads for Democrats.

Congress has been in no hurry to help; the Local Journalism Sustainability Act was first introduced in the House nearly two years ago and has languished since then — despite some bipartisan support for what is now a problem that potentially threatens both parties. The bill offers tax credits designed to fund local newspapers and small news nonprofits at a time when pink slime is increasingly the public’s main course instead of an additive.

Here in the Mobile area, where I live, we have zero daily print newspapers for a population of more than 430,000 people. I don’t believe I’m the only one starving for the real thing.

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