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Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Missing Patterns in Corporate News: Project Censored’s Top 10 Underreported Stories of 2020

Posted By on Wed, Dec 30, 2020 at 6:00 AM

Page 7 of 11

6. Shadow network of conservative outlets emerges to exploit faith in local news

In late October 2019, Carol Thompson reported in the Lansing State Journal that, "Dozens of websites branded as local news outlets launched throughout Michigan this fall ... promising local news but also offering political messaging." The websites' 'About Us' sections "say they are published by Metric Media LLC, a company that aims to fill the 'growing void in local and community news after years of steady disinvestment in local reporting by legacy media,'" Thompson wrote. But it soon emerged that they weren't filling that void with locally generated news, and the 40 or so sites Thompson found in Michigan were just the tip of the iceberg.

A follow-up investigation by The Michigan Daily reported that "Just this past week, additional statewide networks of these websites have sprung up in Montana and Iowa," which was followed by a December 2019 report by the Columbia Journalism Review, revealing a network of 450 websites run by five corporate organizations in 12 states that "mimic the appearance and output of traditional news organizations" in order to "manipulate public opinion by exploiting faith in local media."

All were associated with conservative businessman Brian Timpone.

"In 2012, Timpone's company Journatic, an outlet known for its low-cost automated story generation, which became known as 'pink slime journalism,' attracted national attention and outrage for faking bylines and quotes, and for plagiarism," CJR's Priyanjana Bengani reported. Journatic was later rebranded as Locality Labs, whose content ran on the Metric Media websites.

"The different websites are nearly indistinguishable, sharing identical stories and using regional titles," Michigan Daily reported. "The only articles with named authors contain politically skewed content. The rest of the articles on the sites are primarily composed of press releases from local organizations and articles written by the Local Labs News Service."

"Despite the different organization and network names, it is evident these sites are connected," Bengani wrote. "Other than simply sharing network metadata as described above, they also share bylines (including 'Metric Media News Service' and 'Local Labs News Service' for templated stories), servers, layouts, and templates."

Using a suite of investigative tools, CJR was able to identify at least 189 sites in 10 states run by Metric Media — all created in 2019 — along with 179 run by Franklin Archer (with Timpone's brother Michael as CEO).

"We tapped into the RSS feeds of these 189 Metric Media sites" over a period of two weeks, Bengani wrote, "and found over 15,000 unique stories had been published (over 50,000 when aggregated across the sites), but only about a hundred titles had the bylines of human reporters." That's well below 1% with a byline — much less being local. "The rest cited automated services or press releases."

"Their architecture and strategy is useful to understand the way they co-opt the language, design, and structure of news organizations," Bengani explained.

Automation can make them seem far more prolific than they really are, and can help build credibility.

"Potentially adding to the credibility of these sites is their Google search ranking: in the case of some of the websites set up in 2015-2016, we observed that once sites had gained ample authority, they appeared on the first page of Google Search results just below the official government and social media pages."

So the sites aim to fool people locally about the source of their "news," and Google helps fool the world.

Although The New York Times did publish an article in October 2019 that credited the Lansing State Journal with breaking the story about pseudo-local news organizations, Project Censored notes that "Corporate coverage has been lacking.... The Columbia Journalism Review's piece expands on the breadth and scope of previous coverage, but its findings do not appear to have been reported by any of the major establishment news outlets."



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