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Local media falls victim to partisan politics

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Political groups on both sides of the aisle are throwing money and resources at propping up local, partisan websites that are often designed to appear as straight news. Some of these sites are leveraging Facebook advertising to boost their content.

Why it matters: Local news deserts in America are being displaced by big-money politics, and the trend is accelerating ahead of the 2020 election, thanks in large part to technology.

Driving the news: Publishers on the left have been ramping up their investments in local media this year, launching websites in swing states that will focus on the stories they think are being ignored by the mainstream news.

  • Priorities USA, one of the biggest Democratic super PACs, plans to spend millions of dollars on social media ads that will pump news from independent outlets, Vice News reports.
  • The news follows a report from Axios two weeks ago that ACRONYM, a progressive non-profit, plans to invest over $1 million in "The Dogwood," a new hyper-local digital news site that caters to residents of Virginia, over the next two years.
  • In April, a group of private local investors launched "The Texas Signal" to challenge the right-wing media empire in Texas.

Be smart: The right has traditionally been ahead of the digital curve, experimenting with similar "local news websites," memes and advertising tricks before their Democratic rivals — and most consumers — catch on.

"They invented it. They've perfected this and it's time progressives jump on board in terms of getting our own message out."
— Kevin Nix, CEO and executive editor of The Texas Signal

Between the lines: What's often missing from these websites are adequate disclosures about funding and accountability, argues Newhouse School of Public Communications professor Jennifer Grygiel.

  • Two weeks ago, Grygiel and Buzzfeed News Media Editor Craig Silverman published an in-depth look at a decades-old digital site called "The Patriot Post." It found that the owner of the obscure conservative entity has undisclosed ties to Tennessee Republicans. The site has spent thousands of dollars on Facebook ads touting Trump’s accomplishments.
  • An investigation by Snopes in May found that a series of seemingly innocuous local websites, first reported last year by Politico, are being run by GOP consultants whose businesses are funded in part by candidates the websites cover.
"Both sides in politics spin what they want out there, but what no one should outright lie or make stuff up. We've been very upfront about us being a progressive, fact-based news outlet. We don't want to come across as something we're not."
— Nix

Yes, but: While this trend has recently exacerbated on the left, it isn't totally new to either political party. Axios reported around this time last year about a number of "local news sites," from Democrats and Republicans, with minimal disclosures about who was really behind them.

The big picture: Grygiel argues that technology, and Facebook in particular, has made it easier for partisan news outlets to buy up ads to promote their stories and agendas. She says the disclosure mechanisms on Facebook could be stronger.

  • "Hyper-partisan media is really flourishing. People have realized the potency of Facebook ads as propaganda."
  • To her point, an investigation by The Guardian earlier this month found that little-known conservative media outlets online are using the untraceable ads to push a right-wing agenda and get Donald Trump re-elected.
  • Facebook is exploring additional transparency mechanisms that would show people more information about who is running a Facebook page. It has made transparency information more visible on Pages.

What's next: Local communities that have been losing access to non-partisan news sources are starting to experience small bits of relief, as tech companies, donors, regulators and advocacy groups fund new ventures to replace them.

Our thought bubble: Time will tell if these efforts are able to resonate in local communities as well as the hyper-local sites backed by those with political ambitions.

Go deeper: Politicians are using fake news schemes to get elected