How ‘pink slime’ journalism exploits our faith in local news
At first glance, the Mobile Courant, the site covering my hometown of Mobile, Alabama, has all the trappings of a traditional community news portal like Hartford’s. It has the old sounding name and familiar sections dedicated to local government, business, real estate and sports.
But it’s a smokescreen. Not only is the Mobile Courant short of reporters and editors, but the articles are regurgitated press releases. Clicking on the Politics section takes the reader to verbatim releases straight from the office of Republican Sen. or “Tuberville Veterans Bill Passes US Senate.” Below, you’ll find a steady stream of notifications from the Federal Election Commission about individual donations to various Republican politicians, the boring text seemingly optimized for search engines rather than human consumption.
That Democrats don’t seem to exist in the Courant world is a feature, not a bug. Le Courant is just one of dozens of network sites mass-produced by digital news firm Metric Media since 2019. It is part of a burgeoning right-wing propaganda project posing as a network local non-partisan newspapers.
The answer to the media industry’s woes? Public newspapers.
A decade ago, I coined the term “pink slime journalism” to describe the underhanded way companies like Metric Media exploit Americans’ lingering trust in local newspapers to sell an inferior product. The term refers to the controversial paste-like meat by-product that, according to reports at the time, was supposed to be added to ground beef on supermarket shelves without a label. If 19th century yellow journalism can be defined by the sensationalist “if it bleeds, it leads” mentality, pink slime is quite the opposite. He wants to quietly switch from shoddy pastel paste from a machine to your usual media feed.
Faith in journalism in the age of “fake news” and algorithm-based misinformation continues to plummet, but polls show local news is still relatively well regarded. According to a 2019 Knight Foundation survey, local outlets are significantly more trusted than national organizations — 45-31%. It’s probably because local news focuses on issues that tend to be non-partisan: weather, sports, obituaries, local elections. And staff members are your neighbors and members of your community.
But maybe not for long. As local outlets have disappeared, many have been replaced by algorithmically run pink slime outlets that use the goodwill gained from erstwhile news institutions to help advance political agendas from the outside. of these communities. I know how sausage is made, having worked in the proverbial slaughterhouse of Metric Media’s predecessor in the early 2010s. Journatic was a start-up that borrowed Silicon Valley buzzword to mask the fact that she was not reinventing newspapers – she was just disrupting the high cost of labor in the name of saving the industry from bankruptcy.
Poorly paid freelancers replaced the staff reporters who made a living at newspapers like the Chicago Tribune. Part of my job was to write local stories for the Houston Chronicle — even though I lived in Chicago — and select fake American-sounding bylines for articles written in virtual sweatshops in the Philippines. A Filipino writer named Junbe, for example, could be renamed Jimmy Finkel, thanks to a built-in drop-down menu, and Gisele Bautista could instantly become Jenni Cox. These “journalists” earned pennies per story, and much of the content was plagiarized. “It would pay off if you wrote and edited these stories only if you could write the stories in about 90 seconds,” my remote supervisor told me.
The ugly future of corporate media
In June 2012, I collaborated with public radio journalist Sarah Koenig on an episode of “This American Life” to expose Journatic’s shady tactics. The fallout was instantaneous: the Chicago Tribune and others suspended Journatic or terminated their contracts. But savvy Journatic general manager Brian Timpone didn’t fold; he went underground – renaming the company multiple times in the process.
A few years ago, Timpone switched gears after meeting conservative pundit Dan Proft through the Illinois Policy Institute, a right-wing think tank that then had financial ties to Bruce Rauner, the former recent governor of Illinois. The couple began building a mini media empire that intentionally put a conservative slant on backyard journalism – the Sinclair Broadcast Group of local newspapers. (Timpone and Proft did not respond to email requests for comment.)
This mission is accomplished if you look at the numbers. Metric Media boasts of publishing “over 5 million news articles each month” and claims to be “the largest producer of local news in the United States”. A 2020 New York Times survey identified 1,300 news sites bearing Timpone’s fingerprints, far exceeding those of Gannett, the nation’s largest newspaper chain. But because it’s slobber journalism, it’s not all under one banner. Many were laundered through a network of vaguely named networks such as LGIS News Service, the Business Journals and Newsinator.
Quantity trumps quality. Nothing written by pink-slobbered journalism sites will win a Pultizer Prize, but sometimes one of his thousands of articles on a right-wing discussion topic manages to go viral. This is certainly the case with articles on “critical race theory” and the so-called “revival” of public schools.
Most notoriously, a post from a Chicago-based pink slime site published in May went viral on social media, particularly in right-wing circles, as it claimed suburban school administrators were implementing grading based on on race. The article prompted school officials in Oak Park, Illinois to issue a statement calling the report “not true”, but days after the story was proven false, media outlets from right such as One America News always reported it as fact.
The Oak Park case is unusual in that it broke out nationwide, but it is not an exceptional incident. A study published by the Popular Information Substack found that 28 pink slime sites in Virginia published 4,657 articles on critical race theory in schools between January and November 2021 – many of which contained unverified or false information – just in time for the election of Republican Glenn Youngkin, who rode a wave of anti-CRT sentiment to win the gubernatorial race. It’s hard to say whether these stories help fuel the trend or simply reflect it, but it’s clear that they reflect a partisan political model that has little to do with what’s happening on the land in a particular local community.
Every week, two more newspapers close and the “news deserts” grow
Pink Slime’s obsession with liberal ideology in public schools happens to match one of Timpone’s pet peeves. In 2017, he loudly kicked his children out of an affluent suburban Chicago public school over a move to hire more nonwhite teachers. “This is a small group of left-wing activists who want to push their social engineering on the rest of the community,” he said. “They send teachers to indoctrination camps run by anti-racist consultants.”
The response from Democrats was lackluster. Andrew Yang was the only Democratic presidential candidate in 2020 to make local news grants a part of his campaign, and he is no longer a Democrat. During this same election cycle, ACRONYM, the center-left nonprofit media association behind Shadow Inc. million dollars in Courier Newsroom, a media company that runs eight pro-Democratic news websites in states keys to the swing seem to be respectable local newspapers with folk names like Copper Courier in Arizona and Keystone in Pennsylvania. Articles such as “Sinema, Kelly, Join Bipartisan Group of Senators on Historic Gun Reform Proposal” and “Phoenix Lawyer Known for Defending Election Integrity, Invest in Ed, Nominaled to 9th Circuit” – both written by an undergrad at Arizona State – read like glorified ads for Democrats.
Congress was in no rush to help; The Local Journalism Sustainability Act was first introduced in the House nearly two years ago and has languished since then — despite some bipartisan support for what is now an issue that potentially threatens both sides. The bill offers tax credits meant to fund local newspapers and small nonprofits at a time when pink slime is increasingly the public’s main course instead of an add-on.
Here in the Mobile area, where I live, we have no daily newspapers printed for a population of over 430,000 people. I don’t think I’m the only one hungry for the real thing.