Democrats' swing-state local news ploy
Writers for a D.C.-based media operation run by prominent Democratic operatives are behind a sprawling network of ostensible local media outlets churning out Democrat-aligned news content in midterm battleground states, Axios has learned.
Why it matters: Behind the patina of independent local news, these sites are pumping out content designed to put a sheen of original reporting on partisan messaging.
- It's an increasingly common tactic among political outfits looking to give their team a steady stream of positive content they can then use to boost their own electoral communications.
What's happening: A network of at least 51 locally branded news sites has popped up since last year under names like the Milwaukee Metro Times, the Mecklenburg Herald and the Tri-City Record.
- The sites are focused on key swing states with elections in 2021 and 2022: Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Michigan, New Hampshire, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin.
- Each follows a similar template: aggregated local news content and short write-ups about local sports teams and attractions — interspersed with heavily slanted political news aimed at boosting Democratic midterm candidates and attacking Republican opponents.
The intrigue: "About Us" pages for each of the sites say they're run by a company called Local Report Inc., which was formed in Florida last year.
- Their mastheads indicate involvement by another entity: the American Independent, a Washington-based progressive news outfit.
- Six American Independent writers have each contributed to most or all of the sites in the network, according to an Axios review of bylines on the sites.
- While all of the sites aggregate content from other sources, all six of those authors regularly write stories directly for the Local Report network, with numerous articles appearing exclusively on those sites.
The American Independent was launched by Democratic operative and fundraiser David Brock — also known for founding the left-leaning media watchdog Media Matters for America.
- TAI's president, Matt Fuehrmeyer, is a former senior aide at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and to Harry Reid, the late former Senate Democratic leader.
- The for-profit entity is funded in part by the nonprofit arm of American Bridge, an opposition research-focused Democratic super PAC, according to its website.
What they're saying: Jessica McCreight, TAI's executive editor, described its relationship with Local Report Inc. as a "co-publishing agreement" but would not say whether her organization has editorial control over the sites' content.
- "It’s been widely reported that where local news outlets shut down, dis- and misinformation grows," McCreight told Axios in an email.
- "To combat this challenge, The American Independent has expanded to bring readers local, fact-based news and information on topics and issues that impact their communities."
Local Report used similar language in an emailed statement to Axios.
- "Our portfolio includes a number of digital news sites across the country that are focused on sharing local news and providing readers with fact-based coverage of their communities. We are proud to collaborate with partners like the American Independent that are also committed to bringing the public reliable information that they can trust."
- The email, which came from a generic "[email protected]" address, did not identify the actual name of the sender or anyone else affiliated with the company.
Reality check: Local Report stories have caught flack for misrepresenting others' reporting in order to cast political opponents in a negative light.
- On Sept. 28, the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer’s Nick Wooten accused a Local Report website of lifting some of his reporting on Georgia's abortion ban for a piece. The Local Report story insinuated Gov. Brian Kemp could order investigations into violations of the law.
- Before the day was over, the write-up had earned a signal boost from Stacey Abrams and the Democratic Party of Georgia. (Abrams later deleted her tweet and posted a link to Wooten's original story.)
Between the lines: Local Report's stories receive minimal promotion from the sites themselves — they're not boosted through digital ads, and Local Report itself has no online presence beyond its network of TAI-staffed news sites.
- What they do offer is a steady stream of friendly news coverage that can be touted by political allies.
- In addition to the Abrams campaign, Local Report stories have popped up in communications from the Democratic Parties of Georgia and Michigan, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Michigan's Democratic secretary of state and independent political groups such as Color of Change and the Democratic Coalition.
NewsGuard, which monitors and rates news outlet trustworthiness, last month highlighted a separate network of TAI-branded news sites focused on some of the same states.
- TAI's state affiliates "fail to adhere to several basic journalistic standards,” NewsGuard wrote, in part due to their murky relationship with TAI itself.
- After it posted those findings, Meta removed a number of its Facebook and Instagram ads over violations of its advertising policies, the company's ad disclosure database shows.
The big picture: Quasi-news sites have grown in popularity as a way for partisan actors to try to shift national political debates.
- Republicans also have exploited the tactic, with conservative outfits such as the company Metric Media and its hundreds of locally branded news outfits pumping out steady streams of politically convenient content.