Since January, dozens of identical local news sites have popped up across Texas. In a state where an increasing number of communities don’t have access to local news, this may seem like a blessing. But a study by the Tow Center of Digital Journalism in the Columbia Journalism Review reveals that many of these sites also publish hyperpartisan stories lacking in the transparency that otherwise characterizes reported news.
Metric Media, a Delaware-based nonprofit media organization, has created a total of 56 news sites in Texas over the past year, and 1,200 sites across the United States. The websites are interchangeable in appearance and name, and often share reporters.
On its website, Metric Media claims to be nonpartisan. Its goal, the company says, is to “restore local news in communities across America” as a response to the loss of local news outlets. But content on the sites amplifies Republican politicians and conservative talking points with headlines like “GOP Official Says Dallas Needs to Hire More Police” and “Hoover: Abbott Is Overly Cautious, Should Reopen State.” Stories also seek to discredit other regional media outlets. A recent story in the Dallas City Wire targets the Dallas Morning News and D Magazine for the publication of stories critical of Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson’s efforts to stall proposed cuts in police funding. The company has also bought at least two existing print papers, the Kern Valley Sun in California and the Mount Vernon News in Ohio.
“A big part of the process of generating political influence is undermining trust and credibility in other, more credible news sources,” says Phil Napoli, a professor at Duke University and the author of a report on partisan sites. Napoli says of the 440 partisan local news sites found in his study, more than 400 were conservative-leaning. Most hyperpartisan local sites appear to be funded by conservative sources, Napoli says.
This type of murky, hyperpartisan media operation has come to be known as “pink slime journalism,” a reference to the blush-hued paste used as filler in processed meat. The term was first coined by reporter Ryan Smith in an episode of This American Life where he exposed the business practices of his employer, Journatic, a media company similar to Metric Media. In this instance, the “pink slime” in journalism is funding by political operatives or agenda-driven groups.
Priyanjana Bengani, an author of the Columbia Journalism Review study, says a common tactic in pink slime journalism is to place data-driven journalism at the front while packing in agenda and partisan news at the back.
“Numbers give credibility to a site. Putting figures in a headline just looks more believable,” says Bengani. “And then I think they take advantage of that to peddle whatever agenda they want to.”
Texas is particularly vulnerable to an infiltration of agenda-driven media outlets masquerading as local news sites. The state’s media industry has weathered a loss of 194 papers in the past 15 years. Today, about 22 Texas counties lack coverage from a local paper, leaving readers hungry for community news and vulnerable to hyperpartisan stories.
“One of the reasons why we’re seeing this at the local level as much as we are is because people trust their local news sources more than any other news sources,” Napoli says.
Houston businessman Brent Southwell is one of three members of the board of directors listed on Metric Media’s site. Southwell is the CEO of Professional Janitorial Service and was a donor to the conservative New Leadership PAC, whose goal was to support “conservative candidates to the Texas House” in the 2018 midterm elections.
“Tracing the origins of sites to political action committees, current officeholders, and political consultants are what would lead to a site being classified as partisan,” Napoli says.
Southwell could not be reached for comment.
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