It is now four years since the Tow Center’s landmark investigation exposed the scale of an opaque “pink slime” news operation using the veneer of local journalism to push partisan talking points in the run-up to a presidential election.
That study, by Priyanjana Bengani, marked the beginning of a program of Tow Center research that has already extended beyond the duration of a presidential term.
As we hurtle toward a likely rematch in November, interest in pink slime journalism and the continued growth of partisan local outlets with deep, often opaque ties to dark money, advocacy groups, and other special interests have only continued.
That is why we have compiled our research and reporting into a collection, edited by Andrea Wenzel, associate professor at Temple University and Tow Center research fellow. Sandwiched between an introductory chapter tracing the recent history of pink slime journalism and a discussion of perspectives on the phenomenon from journalism scholars and practitioners interviewed for this report, we bring together Bengani’s series of digital forensic investigations into the emergence, expansion, funding, and function of Metric Media; case studies exploring the production, distribution, and content of partisan local news during the 2022 midterm elections; and Sara Rafsky’s in-depth audience study.
As well as centralizing the Center’s extensive body of work, this provides an opportunity to consider the broader questions about dark money and opaque partisan news in the local news ecosystem.
These include questions about journalistic norms, and the extent to which they might be revised to fit partisan news outlets. Questions about transparency, funding, and objectivity. What it means to be a journalist, to do journalism, to be a news organization. The short- and long-term implications of a localized information war between rival outlets funded with varying degrees of transparency by deep-pocketed partisan donors. What role, if any, these outlets (or variations on them) will play in the reconfigured local news ecosystem. Are they the future of local journalism? What responsibilities do technology companies have, and what could or should they do? How should these operations be factored in to efforts to secure local journalism’s future?
Questions such as these have grown louder over the past four years and will reach fever pitch as the days tick down to what is guaranteed to be another fraught election campaign.
‘Flooding the local zone’
Pink slime journalism floods and dilutes the local news ecosystem with low-quality information. In this regard, its presence and volume create a challenge that forces us to look beyond its (lack of) audience engagement and is far more complicated to track.
By “muddying the waters so that consensus isn’t achievable,” a flooded zone is said to increase cynicism toward, among others, truth and institutions, creating an environment ripe for political polarization and culture wars.
As well as undermining trustworthy, transparent journalism, pink slime plays an important role in stoking local information wars by attracting like-minded players to enter the fray or encouraging “opponents” to fight fire with fire.
The intensification of this battle between competing narratives has the ingredients to create confusion, increase cynicism, and feed perceptions of partisanship—factors that may accelerate the rate at which citizens turn away from trustworthy local news more generally.
As such, the threat of pink slime journalism extends beyond any one producer, network, outlet, or narrative. The gradual drip of its pollution, and its role in stoking information wars in a local news environment already in a state of disarray, has the potential to be far more insidious.
The bulk of our research has centered on the Metric Media network (later Pipeline Media). Networks often cited as part of the same conversation—about blurring the lines between journalism and advocacy due to things like transparency about their connections to partisan funders or dark-money groups, adopting the look and feel of local news outlets while disguising their partisanship, and heavy use of microtargeted digital advertising to reach persuadable voters with partisan messaging during election cycles—include the Star News Network of so-called “Baby Breitbarts,” Main Street Sentinel, Courier Newsroom, Texas Scorecard, Local Report Inc., and American Independent Media.
The mere mention of some of these networks is enough to spark debate.
Should some be welcomed for having a “view from somewhere,” or are they “empty partisan hackery“? How should we distinguish between the two? Is it “false equivalency” to discuss these networks as part of the same conversation?
In July 2020, the editor in chief of Courier Newsroom, which was then owned by progressive dark-money PAC ACRONYM, said:
Courier Newsroom and its affiliated sites are independent from ACRONYM.…
Painting all partisan-leaning outlets with the same brush is dangerous and too often creates false equivalency between very different types of newsrooms. All outlets in the Courier Newsroom network operate with integrity and adhere to traditional journalistic standards.…
Courier aims to combat the misinformation spread by such right-wing sites pretending to be “local news” by providing readers with transparently progressive local reporting.
After the 2022 midterms, Tara McGowan, founder of both ACRONYM and Courier, told Fortune that the network should be distinguished from outlets included in a NewsGuard study of digital ad spending:
Courier is “using every tool available to us to better inform passive news consumers who are being inundated with disinformation online,” she said in a statement. “Because of this, old guard media elites have decided to paint us with the same broad brush they use for actual so-called pink-slime operations like the ones mentioned by NewsGuard’s report.”
The extent to which any of these networks meets any particular definition of “pink slime” is arguably beside the point.
What is important is that pink slime has played—and continues to play—an active role in the proliferation of these operations, each new entrant edging the local information ecosystem closer to an undesirable reconfiguration as a battlefield for partisan information wars.
As recently as November 5, 2023, Courier Newsroom’s homepage was replete with rhetoric positioning its local newsrooms as soldiers in a partisan information war.
Visitors to its website were immediately greeted by a statement detailing the company’s plan to “WIN THE INFO WAR” being waged by “Right-wing media and political figures.” Courier, it said, was “fighting back with newsrooms and journalists all across the country.” Until at least June 1, 2023, this language of partisan warfare was continued on a page titled “Take Action” that sought to recruit an “army” of “Good Info Messengers” with the pitch:
America is engaged in an info war—and we cannot let right-wing pundits and politicians win that war. We’re building an army to counter the likes of Steve Bannon, Tucker Carlson, and Donald Trump.
References to information warfare have since been scrubbed from Courier’s homepage. (So, too, has a statement, on its “About Courier” page—present until at least August 27, 2023—that it is “building the largest left-leaning local news network in the country.” By September 20, that language had been revised to replace “left-leaning” with “pro-Democracy.”)
Will nonpartisan, independent local journalism be a victim of the cross fire in a localized partisan information war?
John Sands, of the Knight Foundation, warned in 2019:
[L]ocal news outlets don’t exist in a vacuum.… The same forces that have eroded trust in the national media are now beginning to filter down to the local level. While more Americans trust their local news outlets more than national, that trust is more fragile than previously understood—and vulnerable to the same perceptions of partisan bias that threaten confidence in the national media.
Trust as it relates to journalism is, of course, a slippery and hotly contested question. But if we take the nationally representative Gallup/Knight Foundation poll American Views 2022: Part 2. Trust, Media, and Democracy, published in January 2023, some of the main drivers of that erosion of trust in national media were: an overwhelming array of news providers competing for attention; perceptions of political partisanship and bias; perceptions that the press intends to mislead, misinform, or persuade; difficulty discerning facts and feeling informed; and perceptions that journalists and news organizations are unreliable, detached from their audiences, and indifferent about the impact of their reporting.
Most of these factors have arguably been less applicable to the local news media. But the rapid rise of sprawling pink slime networks and the adjacent onset of partisan information war based on contesting narratives from opposite sides of the political divide can change that. This may have ramifications for trust in information from the local news media more broadly, leaving open the possibility that the short-term relief of swinging tight elections may come at the longer-term cost of making life even more challenging for local news providers.
What part will opaque, partisan outlets play in the reconfigured local news ecosystem of the future?
[A] democracy in which both parties fund biased, but aggressive and factually accurate, local political reporting would be far better than one in which little-to-no such reporting exists. Thus, left-leaning billionaires and interest groups should probably start preparing to enter the local media fray themselves. The economics of local news might no longer sustain “fair” political reporting—but “balanced” is still within reach.
Opinion will be divided on this. But the large sums being spent on partisan local news have arguably edged us closer to what Levitz envisioned. Most of the outlets that have emerged from the recent expansion of local news networks with red and blue affiliations might reasonably be described as aggressive. The extent to which their output would be described as factually accurate varies, while debates over the ethics of which facts are prioritized or included rage on.
More recently, in a NiemanLab prediction for 2024 titled “We’ll see partisan media more clearly,” Anthony Nadler, one of the experts interviewed for our report, wrote:
I think we’re near a breaking point where media critics, journalists, foundation funders, policymakers, and scholars can no longer assume partisan journalism occupies a marginal part of the news sphere.
In this environment, Nadler argues, “as partisan media becomes more central to politics, we will need to think about it with more nuance, seeing it as more than a menacing rival to professional journalism.”
In the case of the networks discussed here, it is not just their partisanship that raises questions, but their transparency around their backers, motives, and ties to dark money.
The local news crisis, in part caused by a collapse of the industry’s business model, has created a scramble to find viable ways to revive and sustain local journalism.
Outlets funded by dark money have no such concerns; dark money is the business model. As such, we should be prepared for it to form part of the local information ecosystem for as long as the special interests funding it believe it is serving their needs.
The disparity between those with vast sums of (dark) money at their disposal and those without also creates questions for platform companies.
A tactic used by many of these networks involves heavy spending on advertising on technology platforms to microtarget specific (persuadable) segments of the electorate. NewsGuard tallied $3.94 million of Meta ads by four networks during the 2022 midterm cycle.
One of them, the Main Street Sentinel, disappeared after less than a year, having spent around $1.4 million on Facebook ads (many of them targeting citizens in Michigan with stories supportive of Democrats involved in midterm races) between February 25, 2022 (eight days after its domain was registered and less then three weeks after the creation of its Facebook page) and November 18, 2022, ten days after Election Day. The Wayback Machine’s latest snapshot is dated February 8, 2023.
This led NewsGuard to criticize platforms for allowing advertisers to create and manage their own disclosures. On Facebook and Instagram, Meta’s “lax advertising policies…allow them to mask their partisan funders and ties.” Consequently, “partisan networks can, and often do, identify their funders as seemingly apolitical entities, about which little is known.”
In the aftermath of the 2020 election, McGowan described how the news media’s failings had contributed to Courier’s creation:
[I]f mainstream media outlets at the national or state level were savvier about marketing their news content to audiences who live in these narrative deserts and are being inundated with disinformation, they would be more effectively countering it, and we wouldn’t need to build our own full infrastructure to do that.
And [doing that is] insanely expensive. I mean, since starting the organization, we’ve raised close to $100 million and spent nearly every dollar of it. That’s not sustainable.
Multiple experts interviewed for our report argued that local journalism is the best antidote to pink slime and its ilk.
But it is fair to assume that few local news outlets with a more conventional business model would be able—or willing—to compete in terms of the purchase of eyeballs.
Without redress, new or existing outlets will surely face an uphill struggle for attention in a local news environment that can be dominated by outlets able to use funds from deep-pocketed partisan donors to put their output in front of strategically microtargeted audiences.
That leaves questions about what could or should be done to level this particular playing field.
In the meantime, the work continues trying to bring that field into focus.