Secretly Partisan-Funded Websites Posing as Independent Local News Sites On Verge of Outnumbering Daily Newspapers in the U.S.
NewsGuard has now identified 1,202 “pink slime” sites masquerading as local news publishers at a time when there are only 1,230 daily local newspapers left in the U.S.
(December 2, 2022 — New York City) Partisan-backed news sites masquerading as local news outlets are on pace to outnumber local newspapers in the U.S., a NewsGuard tally has found.
As local newspapers across the country continue to shutter, so-called “pink slime” sites — websites funded by partisan groups posing as local news outlets — have rushed to fill the void. As of November 2022, NewsGuard has identified 1,202 “pink slime” outlets across the country, slightly less than the 1,230 daily newspapers left operating in the U.S. Most of these “pink slime” outlets have emerged in the past few years, as the number of traditional newspapers disappear at a rate of two per week, according to Northwestern’s Local News Initiative. At that rate, the pink slime sites would outnumber them by March, even if no new inauthentic sites are funded in the meantime.
The partisan outlets masquerading as local news outlets identified by NewsGuard are comprised of five groups on the left and the right: Courier Newsroom, Local Government Information Services, The Main Street Sentinel, The American Independent, and Metric Media, all of which receive a Red rating from NewsGuard for failing to adhere to basic journalistic standards, warning readers to proceed with caution.
“In an age of accelerating polarization, when Americans of all political persuasions need access to reliable facts more than ever, this is not a turning point that anyone who cares about democracy should celebrate – far from it,” said NewsGuard co-founder and co-CEO Steven Brill. “Reliable, professional journalism sustains democracy. Partisan activists on either side secretly posing as journalists are termites undermining democracy in the most insidious way possible.”
A vast majority of “pink slime” sites are operated by the right-leaning Metric Media group, a network of 1,079 locally branded websites across the U.S., with names such as the Kalamazoo Times, Mobile Courant, and Suffolk Reporter. The group is owned by media entrepreneur Brian Timpone through a convoluted web of companies that makes the exact ownership structure difficult to determine.
Metric Media played a major role in the runup to the 2020 U.S. presidential election, when it quietly launched hundreds of websites in local communities across the U.S., tripling its footprint, according to the Columbia Journalism Review. In 2022, the network continued to pump out partisan content, NewsGuard reported in its Metric Media Nutrition Label.
Metric Media is also behind a network of 35 right-leaning local publications in Illinois owned by Local Government Information Services. The group is controlled by conservative activist and radio host Dan Proft, who in April 2022 founded a political action committee that spent millions of dollars on political advertisements opposing Democratic Illinois Gov. J. B. Pritzker, who was seeking re-election in 2022. The sites in the network have consistently published articles criticizing Democrats and Pritzker — though readers stumbling across such articles online would not have been aware of the network’s partisan backing.
While Metric Media may be the largest and most sophisticated “pink slime” operation, other groups have arisen on the left that emulated its tactics and have added new tactics to target swing voters through paid advertising on social media. NewsGuard has been at the forefront of uncovering and tracking these emerging campaigns.
In September, ahead of the 2022 U.S. midterm elections, NewsGuard discovered a new group of five “pink slime” websites run by the influential Democratic operative David Brock. The five outlets, local sites spun off from the liberal blog, The American Independent — The Arizona Independent, The Michigan Independent, The Ohio Independent, The Pennsylvania Independent, and The Wisconsin Independent — published partisan content aimed at influencing potential voters in key battleground states. NewsGuard also disclosed that the network targeted voters on Facebook, spending tens of thousands of dollars on ads boosting the articles, and by mailing old-fashioned print newspapers to voters in battleground states – a tactic that was also used ahead of the 2022 midterm elections by Metric Media.
The American Independent is behind another group of 51 locally branded websites in 10 political swing states, which launched between May 2021 and August 2022. The sites’ pro-Democrat articles have been frequently shared on social media by Democratic candidates and groups, including the Democratic parties of Georgia and Michigan, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, NewsGuard explains in its Nutrition Label for the network of sites.
In October, NewsGuard reported the extent to which “pink slime” newsrooms were exploiting Facebook and Instagram’s loose advertising rules to disseminate their message ahead of the midterms. NewsGuard found that The American Independent and Metric Media, along with The Main Street Sentinel and Courier Newsroom, two additional “pink slime” newsrooms identified by NewsGuard, spent approximately $3.94 million on ad campaigns running simultaneously on Facebook and Instagram in the runup to the 2022 midterms.
Most of the spending came from Courier Newsroom, which purchased $2.33 million in Facebook and Instagram ads between Jan. 1, 2022, and Oct. 22, 2022, according to Meta’s Ad Library. Courier Newsroom was founded by former Democratic operative Tara McGowan and includes a network of eight progressive websites in battleground states. During the same period, The Main Street Sentinel, a pink slime site with opaque financing that publishes content promoting Democrats, spent $1.2 million on Facebook and Instagram ads.
“Partisan sites masquerading as independent local news publishers are designed to fool readers into trusting untrustworthy sources of information, which has the result of reducing trust in all local news as people realize they’ve been targeted for biased reporting” said NewsGuard co-CEO Gordon Crovitz. “The partisan groups secretly solicit millions of dollars from donors who are willing to undermine trust in news. The social media companies take advertising money designed to spread false and one-sided news coverage, in many cases microtargeting swing voters. These partisan donors and irresponsible social media companies have helped undermine trust in news. The resulting uncertain ‘local news’ environment cuts readership and advertising support for the legitimate news sites that need both now more than ever.”
Launched in March 2018 by media entrepreneur and award-winning journalist Steven Brill and former Wall Street Journal publisher Gordon Crovitz, NewsGuard provides credibility ratings and detailed “Nutrition Labels” for thousands of news and information websites. NewsGuard rates all the news and information websites that account for 95% of online engagement across the U.S., U.K., Canada, Germany, France, and Italy. In August 2022, NewsGuard also launched in Austria. NewsGuard products include NewsGuard, BrandGuard, which helps marketers concerned about their brand safety, and the Misinformation Fingerprints catalog of top hoaxes.
In 2022, NewsGuard began rating television news and information programs and networks using criteria similar to those used to score websites but adapted for the video medium. NewsGuard’s TV ratings are the first to go beyond its initial ratings of websites. Ratings for news and information podcasts will also be available for licensing in 2023.
NewsGuard’s ratings are conducted by trained journalists using apolitical criteria of journalistic practice.
NewsGuard’s ratings and Nutrition Labels are licensed by browsers, news aggregators, education companies, and social media and search platforms to make NewsGuard’s information about news websites available to their users. Consumers can also access NewsGuard’s website ratings by purchasing a subscription to NewsGuard, which costs $4.95/month, €4.95/month or £4.95/month, and includes access to NewsGuard’s browser extension for Chrome, Safari, and Firefox and its mobile app for iOS and Android. The extension is available for free on Microsoft’s Edge browser through a license agreement with Microsoft. Hundreds of public libraries globally receive free access to use NewsGuard’s browser extension on their public-access computers to give their patrons more context for the news they encounter online. For more information, including to download the browser extension and review the ratings process, visit newsguardtech.com.