As Serious Local Journalism Declines, Empty Partisan Hackery Is Taking Its Place

As local newspapers shut down across the country, partisan mudslinging masquerading as news has filled in the vacuum. The Republicans are trailblazers in “pink slime journalism,” but the Democrats are following their lead.

Newspapers that exploit Americans’ trust in local news to sell a poorly made or unethical product are on the rise. (Ira L. Black / Corbis via Getty Images)

Illinois governor J. B. Pritzker is on a mission to abolish boys and girls and turn Illinois into a horror movie. That’s according to the North Cook News, a newspaper mailed to thousands of homes in Chicago’s northern suburbs last month. “No more boys and girls?” read one recent front-page headline. “Pritzker family leads push to replace ‘myth’ of biology.” The article was accompanied by a photo of Pritzker and his cousin, Jennifer Pritzker, who is transgender.

A “special crime edition” of the print paper pushed the wild claim that Illinois’s new SAFE-T law, which would abolish cash bail statewide in 2023, would usher in a real-life version of The Purge, the 2013 Ethan Hawke movie about a terrifying annual holiday where all crime is legal. The framing has caught on, with the Right calling the measure “the purge law.”

When did the local newspaper transform into Fox News: City Edition? The short answer is it didn’t. The North Cook News and its thirty-five sister publications targeting the Land of Lincoln aren’t homegrown journalism. They’re products of a company called  Local Government Information Services (LGIS), which dresses thinly veiled right-wing political propaganda as the trusty ink-stained institutions of yore that traditionally document people, places, and happenings in your backyard. But it’s only possible and effective because of the evisceration of local news.

Slime Rising

People still trust the information in their local newspaper more than any other media source. At 74 percent, newspapers earned three times the trust of news from social media networks, according to a 2018 YouGov survey. But maybe not for long.

A decade ago, I coined the term “pink slime journalism” to describe newspapers like those published by LGIS, which exploits Americans’ trust in local news to sell a poorly made or unethical product. Pink slime refers to the gooey filler added to processed meats without a label.

In 2012, I blew the whistle on Journatic, a startup that had attempted to disrupt the newspaper industry by outsourcing the work of local journalism. The editorial staff primarily consisted of poorly paid freelancers scattered across the country to write or edit tossed-off pieces for newspapers such as the Houston Chronicle and Chicago Tribune. Worse, many stories were produced in a virtual sweatshop in the Philippines by workers earning pennies per story, a fact Journatic disguised with fake American-sounding bylines.

Journatic didn’t die after their shady tactics were exposed on a 2012 episode of This American Life. Instead, they quietly rebranded multiple times — to Local Labs, Locality Labs, and Metric Media — while moving to a new business model. CEO Brian Timpone realized there was little money to be wrung out of the dying newspaper industry, but plenty of cash in pay-for-play partisan politics.

He and Dan Proft, a conservative pundit in Illinois, have quietly built a network of hundreds of pink slime websites over the last half-decade, each distributing thousands of algorithmically generated articles and a small number of reported stories. Their print papers and websites use folksy names like the Sangamon Sun and Rock Island Today as window dressing, but the reporting (if you can call it that) is abysmal. These papers copy and paste word-for-word press releases about local schools, parks, and city government while devoting most of their editorial resources to biased or false political coverage that praises hard-right GOP politicians and blasts Democrats.

More than 360 newspapers shuttered between late 2019 and May 2022. As traditional newspapers continue to die off, pink slime outlets are rapidly filling the gaps, especially in the lead-up to the midterm elections. Purveyors such as Star News Digital Media (called a network of “baby Breitbarts” by Politico), the American Catholic Tribune Media Network, and others have emerged. Metric Media claims that it publishes “over 5 million news articles every month” making it “the largest producer of local news in the United States.” According to the Columbia Journalism Review, Metric is getting lots of traffic from social media advertising; LGIS papers in Illinois have paid $183,000 for Facebook advertising alone.

That kind of spending is possible when you’re funded by conservative Super PACs like the Florida-based People Who Play by the Rules, which received $42 million this election cycle alone from billionaire donors Richard and Elizabeth Uihlein. The PAC is dedicated to unseating Pritzker and electing ultra-right-wing Republican nominee Darren Bailey, who has — among other absurd statements — compared Chicago to a “hellhole” and American abortion laws to the Holocaust.

Democrats are trying to fight back against the pink slime. Pritzker called the Proft-helmed papers “racist” and refused to participate in a debate against Bailey sponsored by the Daily Herald, a suburban paper that was printing the LGIS’s publications. The Democratic Party of Illinois is sending voters leaflets advising them not “to be fooled by phony newspapers sent by right-wing extremists,” with arrows pointing to an issue of LGIS’s Chicago City Wire.

But the Democrats are starting to play the pink slime game as well. Remember Shadow Inc., the tech start-up behind the suspicious 2020 Iowa Caucus results with ties to the Pete Buttigieg campaign? Shadow’s parent company ACRONYM funneled $1.4 million into a media company called Courier Newsroom founded by Tara McGowan, a former operative for a Super PAC supporting Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. Courier, now owned by Good Information Inc., hosts eight news websites in key swing states, like Michigan’s the Gander and Arizona’s Copper Courier. Good Information claims to fight an information war against fake news and right-wing media bias. But they’re fighting fire with fire — or slime with slime.

A Partisan Takeover

In recent decades, media outlets have fallen like dominos for the seduction of political partisanship. What Fox News discovered a generation ago was that a media organization that doubled as the PR organ for the Republican Party could generate lots of cash and ratings. Since then, a large swath of America’s broadcast and print media have followed suit, as documented in journalist Matt Taibbi’s book Hate Inc. “The bulk of reporters today are soldiers for one or the other group of long-entrenched political interests in Washington,” Taibbi wrote.

A consultant with Courier Newsroom I spoke with recently, a former local news editor, told me he thought that this was too dangerous of a time to be nonpartisan. That everyone needed to pick a side for the sake of democracy. Certainly, there is a need for persuasive political opinion writing, which will naturally take sides. But there is a real danger that we will replace nonpartisan outlets that exist to deliver the news, like local newspapers, with Democrat or Republican PR machines, whether they’re legitimate press outlets or slimy alternatives.

People have a right to solidly reported, unbiased information on current events. In fact, democracy requires it. We desperately need stalwart alternatives to pink slime and partisan journalism.