Headlines never tell the entire story, but they do set a tone. That’s certainly the case with some recent coverage of the U.S. presidential race. Consider these examples:
“Lewis says ‘crazy’ urban liberals are driving Minnesotans to Trump.”
“Suburban Moms Are Channeling Their Collective Frustration to Vote for Joe Biden.”
“Biden Goes to Michigan, Reminds Voters of Trump’s Broken Promises.”
“You cannot be Catholic and a Democrat. Period.”
The headlines weren’t written by Joe Biden or Donald Trump’s campaigns, or their political parties, although they might well have been. Instead, they’re products of a new generation of websites that present themselves as local news operations, even as they are run by party operatives.
“These are partisan sites – some on the right, some on the left – that are masquerading as news sites, but what they are putting out is basically propaganda for a candidate or a political point of view,” says William Freivogel, a journalism professor at Southern Illinois University.
In this polarized presidential election year, the number of partisan websites that pose as local news outlets has nearly tripled, to about 1,200, according to the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. They are run by activists or political and public relations consultants, and they publish and repurpose content with a narrow partisan point of view.
VOA attempted to reach several of the sites for interview but only one—the editor-in-chief of a site founded by a Democratic strategist, responded.
At a time when politicians from President Donald Trump on down disparage mainstream media outlets as peddling “fake news,” media scholars worry that these sites will further pollute the information environment, making it more difficult for voters to tell fact from fiction and spin.
“We have seen in some instances sites pop up and adopt the name of a newspaper that went under in the past,” says Philip Napoli, a Duke University professor who’s written about partisan sites. “We had a blatant disinformation site here in North Carolina that took stories that happened years ago in completely different states and rewrote them as if they happened here.”
Filling a void
An enormous hole has opened in the U.S. media market when it comes to coverage of local governments and news. More than 1,800 U.S. newspapers have closed since 2004, according to figures from the Pew Charitable Trusts, while many others are shadows of their former selves, with fewer reporters and less coverage. The new sites hope to fill that void – but without the traditional commitment to balance or fairness.
Although there have long been media outlets with an ideological orientation – Mother Jones on the left, for example, and The Wall Street Journal on the right – they make their leanings clear while maintaining independence for news and some distance from political parties.
The new breed of sites do not always advertise their leanings, or sometimes, their true ownership. “If they’re not selling fact-based news, what are they selling?” asks Anne Nelson, the author of Shadow Network: Media, Money and the Secret Hub of the Radical Right. “Do they attempt to represent the other side? Is it fact-based reporting? Do they care about factual errors?”
Researchers at the Tow Center found the majority of these sites are run by networks with conservative ties or leanings, but the left is getting into the game, too. Courier Newsroom, founded last year by Democratic strategist Tara McGowan, runs eight sites, mostly in states considered presidential election battlegrounds.
Lindsay Schrupp, Courier’s editor-in-chief, is upfront about the goal.
“I don’t think a lot of people fully understand that there is now a very robust right-wing media infrastructure filling that [local news] gap and using right-wing propaganda,” she says. “No one else is doing the job of intentionally trying to fight back against the right-wing misinformation.”
Courier's sites are staffed by reporters present in each state that they cover and run only original content. But some of the other sites do little original reporting. These are so-called pink slime sites, meaning part of their content is generated automatically. They reprint press releases directly, without bringing editorial judgment to information from governments or other interested sources.
Although the sites bear the names of the cities or states they are nominally covering, many are virtual clones running identical stories. Others do generate content that is original and quite partisan in nature, featuring stories that are one-sided, cheerleading for one party while routinely bashing the other.
When Trump appeared in Michigan recently, a conservative site known as Center Square ran a story noting his “avid throng of supporters” and quoting the president touting his own accomplishments while bashing Biden. Coverage of the same event in The Gander, Courier’s Michigan site, criticized Trump for having cut funding for the state’s National Guard that day, while highlighting the coronavirus death toll and noting that Trump supporters were “mostly maskless” and not practicing social distancing.
Center Square is a project of the Franklin News Foundation, which is closely tied to the free-market Illinois Policy Institute. Other sites and networks, including the Local Government Information Services Network and Metric Media have leaders who come from conservative think tanks or Republican Party circles.
Editors and managers at these sites and others did not respond to VOA requests for comment or interview.
For a century after the nation’s founding, most American newspapers were partisan, accepting patronage that included government printing contracts and sometimes displaying the words “Republican” or “Democrat” as part of their titles.
The rise of the penny press newspapers in the mid-1800s and eventually wire services such as the Associated Press had the effect of pushing journalists onto more neutral ground, since they were tapping bigger markets that could be served by not appealing exclusively to partisans.
Over the past 15 years or so, partisan actors have sought to revive the old model.
During his tenure as Indiana governor, Vice President Mike Pence flirted with launching a state-run news site but backed down amid criticism. While Republican Bruce Rauner was governor of Illinois, his allies ran a network of news sites and radio stations that backed his politics while presenting themselves as independent. (Rauner eventually split with the group.)
Half of the country’s 3,143 counties now have only one newspaper, according to the University of North Carolina’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and 200 have none. That’s created so-called “news deserts” and a sense of “desperation” in the journalism business, author Nelson says. The partisan sites are looking to fill the resulting vacuum.
The partisan sites say they are trying to fill the resulting information hole. Metric Media, for example, states that it aims to address the “growing void in local and community news after years of steady disinvestment in local reporting by legacy media."
Nelson, however, says such sites are seeking more to exploit than fill such voids.
“The problem is that people in these towns who may not want to pay for news may turn to them and be misled about the kind of information that they’re getting,” Nelson says. “If you only use the partisan lens, it doesn’t necessarily give you the full picture.”
In some cases, the sites engage in a sort of propaganda laundering. A story might be barely a rewrite of a politician’s press release. That story, in turn, will be cited by the same politician in a tweet or ad, giving the position credence from a legitimate-sounding news outlet.
For partisan actors, running news sites also gives them a way to potentially skirt campaign finance restrictions and put money into consultant’s pockets. A nonpartisan group connected to Nevada’s former Republican attorney general has called on the Federal Election Commission to brand Courier as a political committee, which would subject it to greater scrutiny.
Courier labels itself a progressive news organization but says it does not carry water for any party or candidate. Its majority owner, however, is a digital political consulting group called ACRONYM, which boasts on its website about helping elect 65 progressive candidates in 2018. The group’s political arm is running an anti-Trump digital ad campaign in battleground states.
“They [ACRONYM] are a majority owner of us, but that’s as far as it goes,” Schrupp says. “They have absolutely no editorial influence.”
Although the number of partisan sites is larger, their audiences, in most cases, remain small. The most successful may be The Tennessee Star, a pioneering site on the right, which received more than 2.2 million engagements with readers during the first half of the year, according to NewsGuard, a media watchdog. The Tennessee Star was launched by Michael Patrick Leahy, who helped form the Tea Party movement and is a majority owner of Star News Digital Media, which runs several state-focused sites.
Engagements may include not just a direct visit to a page, but a “like” or share or comment. By rough comparison, large established news sites such as The New York Times and Fox News receive roughly 70 million unique visitors each month.
Local journalists that VOA contacted aren’t giving much thought to these sites as real competition. Several newspaper editors in markets with partisan sites said they weren’t even aware of their existence until contacted for this story.
“I’ve heard of Alpha News, but I don’t know the first thing about it,” says a reporter with the Minneapolis Star Tribune, referring to a local site that receives relatively large traffic for a partisan site. “Never visited the site or seen their coverage.”
Business filings link the site to Alex Kharam, the executive director of the conservative Minnesota Freedom Club, the Tribune has reported previously.
Credibility and the vote
Dubious websites and social media misinformation campaigns largely flew under the radar in the 2016 election. Authorities say this year’s presidential vote is no less at risk.
“People are not tied down to a few sources that they find credible,” says Matt Grossmann, director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University. “They’re willing to go in whatever direction their social media feed moves them, and that can be in a pretty partisan direction.”
Another problem: Some voters may become so mistrustful that they won’t believe what any traditional news sites report.
“If people are constantly questioning the motives of the information they encounter, we don’t want them to be so distrustful that they won’t accept legitimate information from reputable sources,” says Brendan Nyhan, who studies media at Dartmouth College.
“[Misinformation] sites weren’t a big concern until almost after the  election, when people realized how much reach they had,” he says. “We don’t want to make the same mistake in 2020.”
This story has been updated to clarify that Courier Newsroom says its sites only publish original content.