As You Like It

A partisan site in Alabama exploits trust in local news

Illustration by Dadu Shin

Debra Bearden, a real estate agent in Mount Olive, Alabama, wants her news right down the middle. “Just tell me the facts,” she says. She considers herself right of center politically—a CNN and Fox watcher, never MSNBC (“They’re a bunch of loonies over there”). Not long ago, she went on Facebook to dis AL.com, the major statewide news outlet in Alabama, for failing to meet her standards. “AL dot com has not been a reliable news source for many years,” she wrote. Bearden didn’t type her critique on the AL.com page—she doesn’t follow the site on Facebook—but on a post from something called Yellowhammer News. The Yellowhammer post urged readers to “reject” AL.com, and many commenters complied, calling it “fake news.” Someone posted an emoji of applauding hands.

Bearden, who is 56, stopped subscribing to The Birmingham News before 2012, when Advance Local (owned by the Newhouse family, whose portfolio also includes Portland’s Oregonian, Cleveland’s Plain Dealer, and Condé Nast) merged it with three other publications into a “digital first” outfit called Alabama Media Group, known simply as AL.com. Even if you don’t know the details, you know the story: hundreds of reporters were laid off, the newspapers became bureaus, and the print schedule was reduced from seven days a week to three. When I arrived in Birmingham, seeking to better understand the media scene there, the staunch AL.com reader working the desk at the Ramada Inn told me, “Nobody gets the newspaper anymore. Memaw and Pepaw get it delivered.”

Bearden’s reasons for bailing were more ideological. “I just got tired of reading one-handed stories,” she tells me. “It’s gotten to where they want you to believe what they believe.” Asked for an example, she says that AL.com won’t point out when a crime suspect is an undocumented immigrant—Bearden considers this to be editing the truth to fit an agenda. (In fact, many AL.com articles do identify crime suspects as such.) But the criticism that the site is “liberal” is one that editors there are used to hearing. Its op-ed writers span the political spectrum, and in 2016 the editorial board joined the vast majority of American newspapers in endorsing Hillary Clinton for president, casting AL.com as a voice of minority opinion in a state with a Republican-run legislature. Donald Trump went on to nab 62 percent of votes. 

Yellowhammer, on the other hand, was among the first outlets in Alabama to court Trump. In August 2015, Cliff Sims, the site’s founder and former CEO, invited him onto Yellowhammer’s radio show and gushed, “I love what you’re saying.” Trump told Sims he was “a big believer in the Bible” and said, “I go out of my way to use the word ‘Christmas.’ ” 

As it becomes harder to pinpoint the sources of the information that fills our social feeds, it also becomes more difficult to distinguish between those sources on the basis of credibility, bent, or attachment.

Sims started Yellow Hammer Politics, named after Alabama’s state bird, in 2011, soon after Republicans won a supermajority in the statehouse (Sims had been an adviser on one of the races). He incorporated Yellowhammer Multimedia two years later, while continuing to work as a political consultant. Soon, he moved the company into the former headquarters of The Birmingham Age-Herald, a historic Beaux Arts building with hip antique decor, with the help of funds supplied by Yellowhammer’s co-owners: Tim Howe and John Ross, a pair of conservative political consultants with clients in the highest reaches of state government. Both are former directors of the Alabama Republican Party. Yellowhammer’s branding, on its homepage and on Facebook, made it out to be a news site. The email newsletter is clearer: “You’ll now receive a daily dose of news, analysis and opinion from the conservative perspective you’ve been looking for in Alabama.” 

Howe, now the editor, tells me, “In Alabama, there was something we tapped into with ideology. There’s a perception that the more traditional newspapers and news outlets were left-leaning. We wanted to talk about Alabama, and everything interesting in Alabama, in a way that the majority of Alabamians would be receptive to.” 

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Bearden, as a casual reader who “liked” Yellowhammer by clicking through Facebook, noticed that its writers were sometimes right-leaning. But she never pieced together that Yellowhammer’s mission is conservative news, or that it is owned by (now former) Republican lobbyists, or that its contributors also work for Breitbart (though there’s no formal relationship between the two sites, they say). She was unaware that last year, Yellowhammer raked in more than $185,000 in advertising and in-kind donations from political action committees and political campaigns—all Republican—dwarfing Alabama Media Group’s $38,000. (“If you’re a Republican in Alabama, especially if you’re running statewide, you definitely want to consider getting ad space or some coverage from Yellowhammer so those readers know who you are,” Jeff Elrod, a Republican campaign strategist and a college friend of Sims’s, tells me.) Bearden didn’t know that Sims went to work for the Trump White House, as a communications aide, or that when the job didn’t last, he wrote a book about the experience, which came out this winter, called Team of Vipers. (In it, he crows about a run-in with Steve Bannon, described as a Yellowhammer fan: “The Hammer!? Epic,” Bannon is quoted as saying.) “I just thought it was a newspaper,” Bearden tells me.

 

That’s fine by Yellowhammer, one of a spate of sites attempting to extend the partisan journalism landscape into local news, with many of the trappings of a traditional newspaper—real reporting included. “It’s just a microcosm of a macro phenomenon,” Allison Ross—the publisher, and wife of John—tells me on a gray December morning at a Red Cat Coffee House in Birmingham. We’re in an upscale district of converted warehouses; a young customer helpfully advises me not to squash the insect ambling across my laptop screen (“It’s a stinkbug”). “In this age,” Ross continues, “there are so many sources of information that now you have to figure out your niche and fiercely sow that. That’s the only way to be successful in media now.” 

Ross, who is 40, is polished: squared-off eyeglasses, turquoise shift dress, ankle boots. To meet me this morning, she has driven her white SUV from Memphis, where she now lives, running Yellowhammer from afar. Howe, having come up from Montgomery, sits across from her. He is 44, in a nice suit and leather boots that peek out from under his pant legs. 

For a while, the company kept its benefactors’ identities under wraps. Otherwise, “Cliff would have no credibility to stand on,” Ross explains. “Everybody would have assumed he was slanted.” The truth came out as a scoop in a 2014 report by Eddie Curran, an independent investigative journalist, who published a leaked email between Sims and Howe. But the story wasn’t much of a surprise. Many in the state’s reporting ranks—as well as observers on Twitter—have persistently argued that Yellowhammer is too entwined with the Republican Party to be properly considered a news outlet. When I relay that to Ross, she doesn’t miss a beat: “Wouldn’t you say 67 percent of Alabamians are cozy with the Republican Party?” she asks. “You can choose which way you want to focus: Are we cozy with the Republican Party, or are we cozy with our audience? I’m arguing the latter.”

Illustration by Dadu Shin

Yellowhammer has found acolytes on that most successful of online echo chambers: Facebook, with 100,000 followers. That may be a fraction of AL.com’s total (about 728,000), but it’s greater than the number who “like” any of its three consolidated newspapers—the Birmingham News, The Huntsville Times, the Mobile Press-Register—or The Montgomery Advertiser, owned by Gannett. All of these outlets recognize that social media has decontextualized traditional news, creating a flattening effect that puts investigative journalism on the same plane as listicles, memes, and phony stories. That has provided an opportunity not only for publishers peddling clickbait, but also for those with subtler ideological approaches to delivering news and opinion. As it becomes harder to identify the sources of the information that fills our social feeds, it also becomes more difficult to distinguish between those sources on the basis of credibility, bent, or attachment. Suspicion of mainstream-media bias can darken the “sharing” prospects of legitimate reporting and let partisan material sneak into the sights of readers like Bearden, who in outlets like Yellowhammer find coverage that reflects—and reinforces—their views. 

Al Cross, who heads the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky, has observed the growth of sites like Yellowhammer for years—an era, not coincidentally, of cutbacks to local coverage. In the past decade, according to the Pew Research Center, newsroom employment fell by nearly a quarter; since 2017, more than a third of the largest US newspapers have made staff cuts. “Outlets like this are filling the gaps,” Cross says. “But I’m afraid the audience isn’t always aware it’s from a certain perspective.” He doesn’t see a new trend so much as an old one, harking back to the early days of American journalism, when papers were openly partisan (Horace Greeley’s Whig organ, the New-York Tribune; the incendiary broadsheets of the Reconstruction-era South; the warring dailies in large towns, one on the right, the other on the left). The ethics of objectivity emerged as an alternative, through the formation of the Associated Press, in 1846, which provided politically neutral stories to appear in papers of every stripe, and the vow of The New York Times, in 1896, “to give the news impartially, without fear or favor.” The Federal Communications Commission established the Fairness Doctrine in 1949, requiring TV and radio to broadcast contrasting sides of a story on matters of public importance. That policy was scrapped in 1987, enabling the rise of punditry. “We’re reverting,” Cross says, “to a bad old form.”

Is Yellowhammer masquerading as news, or is it what Howe says it is: an authentic (if retro) style of journalism designed to suit consumers in a conservative market? Many of the site’s articles make its political position clear: some mercilessly criticize AL.com; others chime in predictably on the happenings in the statehouse; a review of the stage adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird playing on Broadway is passive-aggressive (“It is not an indictment of modern-day Alabama, nor of conservatives or who conservatives elect. Given American pop culture. . . that’s saying something”). 

Is Yellowhammer masquerading as news, or is it an authentic (if retro) style of journalism designed to suit consumers in a conservative market?

Yet a reader will find that not all of Yellowhammer’s dispatches are nakedly partisan. It runs AP stories, and Sean Ross, the site’s most prolific writer, often deploys a straight-news tone in his reports. There’s also a steady drip of feel-good Alabama coverage with no obvious political angle: a pickle company moving production to the state, Alabama college football, a video feature in which an interviewer asks passersby, “What is Christmas?” Yellowhammer has paid to boost political stories on Facebook, and Allison Ross says she does the same to spread these lighter pieces, aiming to bring in an audience beyond political junkies. 

What’s more, there has been some substantial journalism. Leada Gore, a reporter for AL.com who has covered Yellowhammer, tells me, “To Cliff’s credit, he’s an excellent marketer. It came at the right time; it was slick.” (Sims declined to comment for this piece.) There have been moments, Gore adds, when “I’d look at Yellowhammer and say, ‘Dadgum, I wish I had that story.’ ” In the spring of 2016, for instance, Sims published a tip from “multiple confidential sources inside of state government” that Robert Bentley, the governor of Alabama—and a Republican—had left his home after arguing with his wife about an affair he’d been having with a political aide, and had driven to his beach house on the Gulf of Mexico. Bentley realized he’d left his wallet behind, Sims reported, and ordered that the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency helicopter it to him—which it did. John Archibald, a Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist for AL.com, would later commend Yellowhammer for the scoop, calling it “one of the most jaw-dropping bits of the puzzle” in covering a fiasco that led to Bentley’s resignation.

Cross, however, remains unimpressed by sites like Yellowhammer. “That’s not the way you should do journalism,” he says. “They’re presenting material in a way that is journalistic, without acknowledging or being plain about where they’re coming from.”

 

It’s telling that, when Russian disinformation agents of the Internet Research Agency created Twitter profiles to meddle in US politics, they often chose names that sounded like local newspapers: @ElPasoTopNews, @MilwaukeeVoice, @CamdenCityNews, @Seattle_Post. Many of the agents had played the game for years, posting legitimate local news to build a following before they were caught by Twitter and axed. Homespun disinformation threats have done the same: during the 2016 election season, a man from the Los Angeles suburbs named Jestin Coler created several Facebook accounts to pump out fake news meant to discredit Hillary Clinton—for profit—and ultimately built a website called the Denver Guardian. “I had studied what methods people use to debunk fake news,” Coler said at a 2017 conference hosted by NewsWhip, a firm that tracks social-media engagement. “So I built the Denver Guardian, which is the evolution of where this is going next. It featured a lot of local news. It looked just like a local newspaper.” Local media, more attuned to the particulars of readers’ lives and the cogs of community government than to sweeping dogma, tend to be considered more trustworthy than national outlets. According to a recent Poynter survey, the difference is about 20 percentage points.

Yellowhammer is merely a relatively mature example of the attempts to create alternative local news outlets that capitalize on America’s media polarization where it dovetails with community news credibility. And as local newsrooms continue to be wiped out, other untested publishers are rushing into the void.

One is Kentucky Today, started in 2015 by the Kentucky Baptist Convention, the association for the state’s Southern Baptist churches. Beyond its stand-alone website, Kentucky Today functions as a wire service—providing articles about state politics to some 15 local newspapers as a free alternative to a pricey AP subscription—and it recently launched a radio program offering state news for local stations to pick up. The site is edited by Roger Alford, a former AP reporter who also serves as the Baptist Convention’s communications director; he hired a handful of journalists away from mainstream newsrooms. In a state where more than one in four people identify as evangelical Baptists, Kentucky Today has amassed a Facebook following of 15,000. Its homepage discloses that its mission is to serve readers of faith, though its Facebook “about” page claims that the outlet’s stories have caught on with “conservatives of every kind, from every corner of the state.” The op-ed page runs predictably conservative—and includes a vertical on church affairs—yet Alford insists that his state politics reporter “plays it right down the middle.” 

Not everyone agrees. Speculation abounds, for instance, as to the site’s benefactors: Kentucky Today launched around the time Governor Matt Bevin, a Republican, entered office. No friend of journalists—he regularly ignores press inquiries and once referred to a reporter who challenged him as “#PeepingTom” on Twitter—Bevin granted a one-on-one interview to Kentucky Today, which graded his first year as an A-plus. (Bevin, in a 2017 speech, offered this media criticism: “With all due respect to what now passes for traditional media, it’s dying for a reason.”) Alford denies that he has received funding from Bevin or the Republican Party, saying that the site takes money from the Baptist Convention and received a $300,000 donation from a “gentleman” in rural western Kentucky only “known to the director of the Kentucky Baptist Foundation,” the fund-raising arm of the church. 

Illustration by Esther Wu (Click to enlarge)

To the south, in early 2017, Michael Patrick Leahy, a Breitbart contributor; Steve Gill, a hard-line conservative talk show host; and Christina Botteri, a Tea Party activist, launched The Tennessee Star. Their site, which has 12,000 Facebook followers, covers state politics from a Tea Party perspective and offers workshops that, as Leahy wrote to me in an email, “help parents raise children who believe in America.” They have a business office in Nashville; there are writers, but no newsroom. Leahy says the site is supported entirely by advertising from local companies that endorse their limited-government view. They received a “six-figure equity investment” in August, he tells me—from a “for-profit private investor group,” the details of which he won’t share—to establish similar websites in 17 swing states that Leahy says will decide the 2020 election. Each site will be a state “bureau” with local newspaper branding and cross-posting on “Battleground State News,” an upstream aggregator. So far, Leahy and Gill have hired seven contributing reporters; The Ohio Star and The Minnesota Sun are live. 

The Facebook numbers for the newer sites are fairly paltry. “Ultimately, Facebook, in our view, promotes a partisan, Far Left Democrat agenda,” Leahy tells me. In reality, Facebook has been entirely accommodating of conservative posts, and executives have even made overtures to Republican leaders; furthermore, any page can self-identify as a news site. Last fall, Facebook started an index to register legitimate news outlets, an effort that has, to date, rolled out only to a small portion of the English-language market. The company defines “news” as sites with bylined and time-stamped stories that cite sources and don’t rely on user-generated or aggregated material. Yet setting parameters is difficult, Facebook executives have admitted, when news goes from merely shamelessly slanted to straight-up disinformation, and the company relies on third-party fact checkers (FactCheck.org, PolitiFact) to debunk untruths. Sites shown to be disseminating falsehoods get a lower ranking in the news feed. Facebook  has also launched a feature to give readers more context on sources in the news feed: an “i” button that, when clicked, shows the site’s Wikipedia description (Yellowhammer’s calls it a “conservative site”), how long it’s been on Facebook, and a sampling of other recent articles by the publisher. 

Campbell Brown, the head of global news partnerships at Facebook, has acknowledged that local news may present unique challenges. “There are lots of new organizations cropping up on the local level, and some of them may have an agenda as opposed to the more traditional news outlets,” she told CJR in a recent interview. But when it comes to ideology, in Facebook’s latest forays into local media—including its “Accelerator,” which aims to help local newsrooms boost their subscribers—she said, “We didn’t really think about that.”

Conservatives are not the only ones going the partisan local news route. As alt-weeklies, the left flank’s traditional challenge to mainstream dailies, crumble, new outlets are emerging online. The Greenville Gazette, run by two sisters in South Carolina, according to its “about” page, has accumulated an estimable 719,000 followers on Facebook by posting apolitical clickbait interspersed with liberal-pleasing political memes, often with links to Amazon pages selling Trump troll dolls and toilet paper emblazoned with an angry Trump face. (The site didn’t respond to CJR’s request for comment.) Shareblue Media, run by liberal activists who pump news pieces into social networks, maintains a local news vertical. 

Holly McCall, a prominent member of the Tennessee Democratic Party, recently called for a Star-like mouthpiece on her side. Quoted on a local blog, she said, “We need a full service digital shop to compete with the other party, we need to be creating our own original content. There’s a publication called the Tennessee Star that represents the right very well. Now, I don’t agree with anything they say, but I think they do an excellent job of representing the views of the far-right conservatives, and we don’t have anything like that.” Leahy sent the quote to me as a sign that he and his cohort are gaining traction. Soon after, I learned that McCall’s wish had already been granted, sort of: in the wake of the 2018 midterms, a Facebook page called “Sounds Like Tennessee,” focused on local news, was revealed to be the work of News for Democracy, a group funded by Reid Hoffman, the billionaire baron of LinkedIn, who has committed to backing liberal causes. (Facebook is investigating the page, along with 13 others News for Democracy helped create.)

 

For Yellowhammer, sometimes being partisan presents its own internal conflicts. In 2015, Elizabeth BeShears—a recent college graduate who had worked for the advocacy arm of the Heritage Foundation, a prominent conservative think tank, and Citizens for Media Accountability, a site with Yellowhammer connections that covered press bias—became an editor of Yellowhammer, and ran up against political walls. BeShears, who says her politics are socially libertarian and fiscally conservative, claims she was directed not to publish a profile she’d written of Jonathan McConnell, a primary challenger to Richard Shelby, the incumbent Republican US senator. “Cliff Sims told me not to run it,” she recalls. Soon after, she quit Yellowhammer and joined the McConnell campaign. It wasn’t until the election was over (Shelby won) that BeShears saw federal filings showing that Shelby’s campaign had spent $10,000 on Yellowhammer ads and $459,431 on the lobbying firm of Howe and Ross. 

“With all due respect to what now passes for traditional media, it’s dying for a reason.”

After Sims left to work for Trump (he also sold his stake in Yellowhammer), Howe and Ross sought to replace him and eventually hired J. Pepper Bryars and Rachel Bryars, conservative writers, as chief editors. But Pepper, who calls himself a National Review–style conservative, disagreed with management over Roy Moore—the US Senate candidate who allegedly sexually assaulted minors—writing in a column that Moore was a liar. In an editorial by Howe and Ross, Yellowhammer officially endorsed Moore, and its Instagram urged any conservative who had a problem with him to simply vote for a straight Republican ticket to avoid having to check the box by Moore’s name. With two months remaining on a twelve-month contract, the Bryarses left. Howe quit lobbying, he says, and has since dedicated himself to Yellowhammer full-time. John and Allison Ross moved to Memphis; Allison is now a co-owner of Yellowhammer and John works for a medical supply company, Preferred Medical Systems, of which Greg Reed, the State Senate majority leader, is executive vice president. 

In Birmingham, I meet John Hammontree, a hometown boy and editor of AL.com’s “in-depth team.” Wearing stylish horn-rims, he shows me around the Birmingham News office and its hall of archival photographs documenting the city’s 1960s civil rights battles. Those were exciting days for politics and  journalism in Birmingham. Evidence of the paper’s diminished status isn’t hard to find; even remaining subscribers have expressed disappointment—delivery only three days a week means they can’t get the Friday high school football scores until Sunday. “The team just continues to do the best they can with the resources we have,” Hammontree says. We walk in search of coffee. As for partisanship, he explains, “I think the idea that Alabama votes Republican, and thus Alabama news should only reflect a conservative viewpoint, is a way of silencing dissent. It’s not a way of giving people legitimate news.” Still, he adds of Yellowhammer, “I don’t think we would ever want to silence them. We would just want them to do their jobs better.”

Derision for AL.com was baked into Yellowhammer’s editorial mission—Sims routinely called it an “Alabama sports website and liberal political blog,” a line Yellowhammer continues to trot out today—and op-ed writers persistently mention “fake news” that they claim to spot on AL.com. Some readers parrot Yellowhammer’s slights. Henry Yearwood, an IT worker in northern Alabama, regularly trolls AL.com on Twitter. (“Thank God Yellowhammer news is gaining strength. There has to be an alternate news source to leftist Alabama Media Group,” he tweeted in October, later appending the barbed observation that Yellowhammer is “locally founded and funded at this time.”) Does Hammontree worry what might happen, at an already troubled time for local newsrooms, if readers slide over to Yellowhammer entirely? “If the mainstream press weren’t out breaking news stories then I don’t think Yellowhammer would have anything to write about, other than whatever Republican talking points they get emailed to them each morning,” he tells me.

Yellowhammer faces its own challenges, chief among them being the fact that in January 2018 changes were made to Facebook’s algorithm that would make it harder for news organizations of all kinds to promote their work. But Allison Ross says her team is focused on other moneymakers: sponsored posts and banner ads that run on the site, app, and daily newsletter; an hourly news update in syndication across more than 35 stations in Alabama and the Florida Panhandle; and a weekly show on YouTube. Yellowhammer hosts sponsored live newsmaker events and ticketed awards dinners (mostly for Republican movers and shakers) and hawks merchandise branded with its bird logo.

In the past year, Ross says, she’s fielded calls from others interested in replicating Yellowhammer’s model. It’s simple, she tells them, though that doesn’t mean it’s easy: “Respect your audience, serve them, diversify your revenue.” Recently, she entered a partnership with Y’all Politics, a conservative site covering Mississippi. Ross is also talking to two or three other outlets about business agreements in places where Republicans “feel like the conservative footprint is at risk,” she explains. “Battlegrounds, or some of them used to be battlegrounds but are trending blue.” Given Yellowhammer’s track record, she sees an opportunity to “take the secret sauce on the road.”

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Lauren Smiley is a San Francisco-based journalist. For a Wired feature, she won a 2018 National Press Club award, and she is now the investigative reporter on a serial true crime podcast with Glamour and HowStuffWorks called Broken Harts.