Partisan Newspapers Filling the Void of Traditional Media

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Pennsylvania’s most widely circulated newspaper appeared, without fanfare or explanation, in the mailboxes of about 1 in 5 homes in the state in April.

A 12-page tabloid with a circulation of 953,000, it has arrived every month since, featuring Associated Press articles, crossword puzzles, recipes and helpful updates on nearby towns with the prices of l lowest gasoline. But nowhere in its pages does it reveal its true mission.

The Pennsylvania Independent is, in fact, a new kind of increasingly popular political-journalism hybrid on the left — just part of a quiet $28 million effort in four states for the election year by the Independent Foundation. liberal-leaning American society and partner groups aimed at influencing voters in the midterm elections.

Only the articles offer a clue to the underlying intent: An article in the October issue described opposition to “any gun safety measures” by “New Jersey resident” Mehmet Oz, the Republican candidate in the Pennsylvania Senate. Other articles detailed President Biden’s Nationwide Manufacturing Initiative, Republican denials of the 2020 election results, and a proposed nationwide abortion ban by Sen. Lindsay O. Graham (RS.C.).

“All of the reports that we put in the papers are checked and verified,” said Jessica McCreight, a former Democratic consultant who serves as the operation’s editor. “It turns out it’s the Republicans doing bad things and the Democrats doing good things.”

The Independent has quietly positioned itself on the periphery of an emerging and controversial industry fueled by ideological donors seeking to advance political agendas with the trappings of old-fashioned journalism, right down to ornate gothic typefaces.

As local newspapers slumped amid increased online advertising competition, niche news products with private funding sources sprang up to fill the void. Some, like the American Independent newspaper network, operate as a sort of persuasive direct mail message, while others repost and reuse content on hundreds of websites with hyperlocal names like the Fond Du Lac Times in Wisconsin. and the Boulder Leader in Colorado. Additional experiments sought to build actual newsrooms in key swing states to attract audiences to more ideological viewpoints.

The new journalism – and the PR firms behind it

The projects have alarmed journalism educators, who fear the new entrants will mislead readers, undermine the reputation of existing journalistic brands and, in some cases, fail to meet even basic standards for the professions, such as disclosing conflicts. interests or seek multiple perspectives. on contested issues.

Peter Adams, senior vice president of the News Literacy Project, a group that has partnered with the Washington Post on educational programming, says products like the Independent need to be called out.

“It’s one thing if you have a political goal and are upfront about it. It’s another if you try the trappings of standards-based institutional local media that aspire to serve the public interest,” Adams said. “It’s unethical. And it’s clearly designed to co-opt the credibility of what we’ve always called the press.

Progressive defenders of the projects, however, argue that they are legitimate attempts to build an unapologetic media ecosystem to counter the prominence of conservative news.

A relatively new news operation, the Courier Newsroom, founded by former Democratic operative Tara McGowan, has established online news websites in eight presidential states, with around 70 reporters covering a wide range of topics. , while disclosing major donors. Another set of online communities, PushBlack and Pulso, which have been supported by non-profit media lab Accelerate Change, seek to recreate the spirit of ethnic media, with regular posts about pride and cultural concerns, mixed to civic engagement efforts, including information on how to “confirm your voting status”.

Dmitri Mehlhorn, co-founder of Investing in US, an investment fund backed by LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, says the new operations are necessary and effective.

“You end up funding things like The American Independent and Courier and PushBlack at the end of a long decision tree, where you’re looking at ways to fight misinformation,” Mehlhorn said. “We believe that at this stage your information must be objective, which is not compatible with claiming to be non-partisan.”

At right, a conservative network called Local Government Information Services funds a network of local online publications in Illinois, supported by 11 regional print editions mailed to homes. Others, like the liberal Local Report and hundreds of sites run by the conservative Metric Media, adopt hyperlocal branding of websites, often with content that is little more than repurposed, unfiltered content, with bylines that read “Press Release Submission.”

Copies of one of Metric Media’s properties, The Grand Canyon Times, arrived in mailboxes in Arizona, filled with positive stories about Republican Senate candidate Blake Masters and aggregated information about high school sports. . Recipients posted pictures on twitter of a disclaimer on the paper that reads “Paid for by Saving America PAC”, a group supporting the Masters campaign candidacy. Metric Media and Local Government Information Services did not respond to requests for comment.

Since the spring, the American Independent Foundation, a nonprofit that does not disclose its donors, has sent 3.2 million monthly newspapers to households that have been selected because they contain ideologically moderate and progressive female voters. , according to McCreight.

This gives the brand a larger circulation than the country’s top 25 print dailies combined, as measured by the Alliance for Audited Media. In addition to Pennsylvania, about 1.1 million homes in Michigan and nearly 600,000 homes in Wisconsin and Ohio received issues.

Margaret Sullivan: Beware of partisan ‘pink slime’ sites posing as local news

“Ron Johnson made millions from China Connection,” headlined the cover of a recent Wisconsin edition, referring to the outgoing GOP senator’s investment in a plastics company based in Oshkosh, where he previously worked and which has a parent company with operations in China. “A billion dollar electric vehicle production plant opens in Ohio thanks to Biden,” read another headline from that state. A Michigan edition led with good news about the Democratic governor: “WHITMER BRINGS TECH INVESTMENT TO MICHIGAN.”

The operation, with 13 writers and six editors, is being carried out in concert with American Bridge, the largest Democratic opposition research group. Oliver Willis, a former top writer for Media Matters for America, the liberal media watchdog, works as the publication’s senior editor. Matt Fuehrmeyer, former director of research at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, is the group’s chairman.

David Brock, founder of Bridge and Media Matters who helped set up the Independent, said the idea for a newsprint program grew out of research that showed great faith in local news, especially in women.

“Independent women are not cable news junkies. They are on Facebook but they don’t trust it. The thing they trusted in the investigation we did was the local print media,” he said. “It’s in the tradition of advocacy journalism. He comes from a center-left point of view. We try to shed light on the actors who stand in the way of progress.

During the 2021 Virginia gubernatorial election, the American Independent ran a test to see if newspapers mailed to voters’ homes could change behavior. Post-election polls by True Blue Media compared the behavior of people who had received the newspaper in the mail and a similar group of voters who had not. The test found that newspaper recipients were 2.2% more likely than the control group to support Biden and 6.3% more likely to vote for Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, McCreight said.

The Independent is planning another round of testing after midterms to see how well newspapers have been motivating voters to the polls. The hope, McCreight said, is to hire more staff before the 2024 election.

“It’s reminiscent of a bygone era,” she said. “We want to build on that trust to keep it going for a long time.”

The Independent’s political approach that has not been adopted by other progressive media. At the Courier, McGowen has gone to great lengths to try to gain journalistic credibility for his newsrooms, which publish on sites with names like UpNorthNews in Wisconsin and The Gander in Michigan.

Their coverage is much broader than election news, although McGowen is testing to see if there are any effects on the voting behavior of his readership. Ahead of the primaries in Iowa this year, she bought ads to deliver content to potential Democratic voters from the Iowa Starting Line, her publication in that state. After the election, as Wired magazine first reported, she tested whether those targeted voted at higher rates than those who weren’t, finding that the content helped drive revenue. thousands of votes.

But McGowen says his operation is not focused on election results. The operation’s mission statement sets a different goal: “to protect and strengthen our democracy through credible, factual journalism that seeks to create a more informed, engaged, and representative America.”

“Building long-term trust and engagement with our audience is our top priority; that’s why we disclose our funding sources, why we hire journalists who live in the communities they serve, and why we’ve built a growing community of nearly one million subscribers who interact with our newsrooms year-round,” McGowen said in a statement.

“At a time when trust in media and institutions is rapidly declining, any media effort that presents itself as something not in the interest of short-term political gain does more harm than good. good,” she added.

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