Shadow Network of Conservative Outlets Emerges to Exploit Faith in Local News
A report by the Columbian Journalism Review highlighted a troubling trend in online local news coverage from so called ‘pink slime’ outlets. These sources tend to take on local sounding names like the East Michigan Times, Hickory Sun, and Grand Canyon Times. Stories on these sites often pull information from public information outlets like government information releases and apps like GasBuddy to produce automated stories that appear to target local audiences. Other stories, with bylined authors, pull from sources like the Tax Foundation or local builder’s associations to produce news that appears, at a first glance, to be relatively mundane local news briefs from a “local” news organization.
The problem? Many of these websites, which number in the hundreds, likely belong to a larger network of conservative organizations looking to capitalize on the void created as independent local news outlets have been shuttering their doors over the past several years. As Priyanjana Bengani wrote, these websites and networks can “aid campaigns to manipulate public opinion by exploiting faith in local media.”
While the web of interconnected sites is difficult to follow, the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) report highlighted five corporate bodies with 21 news networks that seem, in one way or another, to be connected with each other in a complex web of shared IP addresses and backend web IDs. For instance, the largest of these networks, Franklin Archer: Local News Networks, doesn’t seem to directly share an IP address with any of the major outlets mentioned in the CJR’s report. But, Franklin Archer: Metro Business does share an IP address with LocalLabs: Topical and LocalLabs: International. An even clearer indicator is a network of shared IDs from backend cloud services like NewRelic. As before, Franklin Archer: Local News Network shares an ID with some Local Labs outlets. Interestingly, they also share an ID with Metric Media: Maryland which is just one outlet of the larger Metric Media network that was the second largest of the networks mentioned by the CJR report. LGIS, which shares an aforementioned NewRelic ID with Franklin Archer, also shares a Quancast ID with many of the Metric Media sites.
This sort of circumstantial evidence, along with the more obvious technological links between these networks, paints a troubling picture of a network of locally targeted news that is anything but local. Alongside stories about gas prices and Department of Education news releases, sit more ideologically charged stories about limiting government and the dangers posed by unions.
While there were stories about this published by the New York Times and the Guardian in October and November of 2019 respectively, the lion’s share of coverage has been proudced by smaller, local news sites including the Michigan Daily, the student newspaper for the University of Michigan. The Columbia Journalism Review’s piece expands on the breadth and scope of other coverage. Outside of the aforementioned stories, corporate coverage has been lacking with regards to this Sinclair-like network of right-leaning news sites filling the holes left by the death of so many local news outlets.
Priyanjana Bengani, “Hundreds of ‘Pink Slime’ Local News Outlets Are Distributing Algorithmic Stories and Conservative Talking Points,” Columbian Journalism Review, December 18, 2019, https://www.cjr.org/tow_center_reports/hundreds-of-pink-slime-local-news-outlets-are-distributing-algorithmic-stories-conservative-talking-points.php.
Katherine Sourine and Dominick Sokotoff, “Pseudo Local News Sites in Michigan Reveal Nationally Expanding Network,” Michigan Daily, November 1, 2019, https://www.michigandaily.com /section/community-affairs/pseudo-local-news-sites-michigan-reveal-nationally-expanding-network.
Student Researcher: Troy Patton (Diablo Valley College)
Faculty Evaluator: Mickey Huff (Diablo Valley College)
Review Article with Credder