Jun 11, 2024 - Business

Dark money news outlets outpacing local daily newspapers


Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The number of partisan-backed outlets designed to look like impartial news outlets has officially surpassed the number of real, local daily newspapers in the U.S., according to a new analysis.

Why it matters: Many of those sites are targeted to swing states — a clear sign that they're designed to influence politics.

A scatter plot of States with the most dark money or misleading local news sites vs. their 2020 presidential vote margin. Most states have between 5-20 of these sites, but a group of key swing states including Georgia, Michigan, Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin hold an outsized proportion of these sites, between 40 and 70.

By the numbers: There are at least 1,265 websites identified as being backed by dark money or are intentionally masquerading as local news sites for political purposes, according to a new report from NewsGuard, a misinformation tracking company.

  • As of last year, there were only 1,213 daily local newspapers in the U.S. That number may have gone down significantly in the time since, but the researchers who track that data have yet to release an updated figure for 2024.
  • Nearly half (45%) of the sites observed as part of the study were targeted to communities or regions in swing states, according to an Axios analysis of the sites. The most frequently targeted states are Illinois, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Ohio, Florida, Michigan and Georgia.

Catch up quick: These types of websites are often referred to as "pink slime," a term that originated in the ground beef industry.

  • The term has been used for more than a decade to describe politically motivated websites masquerading as independent local news outlets.

Zoom in: There are eight primary organizations that have been identified as supporting most of the sites identified — four lean conservative and four lean progressive.

  • The vast majority of the sites observed are backed by Metric Media, a conservative network traced back to media entrepreneur Brian Timpone, who has links to conservative donors.
  • Most of the Metric Media sites don't include much information about the sites' funders or management. The stories typically lack bylines and many are outdated or marked as "press release submissions."

Between the lines: Some of the more strategic sites are run by groups that are more much explicit about their funding and motives, such as Courier Newsroom and States Newsroom.

  • Courier News, as Axios has reported, is part of a public benefit corporation backed by billionaires Reid Hoffman and George Soros. It aims to tackle disinformation by funding local newsrooms with a progressive perspective.
  • States Newsroom lists on its website all individual funders who have contributed over $1,000. The group was incubated originally via a left-leaning nonprofit called The Hopewell Fund before spinning out as an independent nonprofit in 2019. States Newsroom has pushed back against NewsGuard's characterization of it as partisan.

Zoom out: Some of the networks, such as the left-leaning American Independent, back the websites they support through a 501(c)(4) group — a signal that the entity considers itself political in nature.

  • Others have been identified as more explicit disinformation campaigns targeting local U.S. news consumers, including a network of pro-Kremlin news sites that tend to lean toward conservative messaging.

The big picture: The rapid decline of local newspapers has left a void that partisan actors on both sides of the political spectrum are eager to exploit.

  • The rise of artificial intelligence and new content generation tools have made it easier, faster and cheaper to build and market those outlets online.
  • In the internet era, where so much news and information is distributed through social media and search networks, the quality of a specific site doesn't preclude it from being discovered.

What to watch: While the internet has proven a breeding ground for dark money-backed sites, similar tactics are also being used in print.

  • Residents of battleground states, such as Pennsylvania, Illinois, Michigan and Ohio have been targeted by partisan papers masquerading as independent local news outlets.
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