The University of North Carolina’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media recently released a report titled “The Expanding News Desert,” which showed that over the last 15 years, more than a fourth of America’s newspapers and half of its journalists have “disappeared,” turning thousands of communities into “news deserts” no longer served by anyone who can provide a comprehensive and accurate description of what is happening in those communities.
Into that vacuum of community news-gathering, other things have flowed.
Last year, the Lansing State Journal noticed a website, the Lansing Sun, that appeared to be a community news outlet but was in fact part of a network of dozens of sites aping the appearance of community news outlets, while running “stories with a conservative political bent.” Reporters elsewhere followed up, with Columbia University’s Tow Center eventually reporting on “at least 450 websites in a network of local and business news organizations, each distributing thousands of algorithmically generated articles and a smaller number of reported stories.”
By August of this year, the number of sites in this network had nearly tripled to over 1,200. Last Sunday, The New York Times identified the man behind these sites, a former journalist named Brian Timpone, and uncovered details about precisely what these sites are for and how they work.
The sites operate essentially as pay-for-play propaganda and public relations for conservative organizations, donors, and politicians. Clients pay for certain “news” to be produced—and then it is, published on a normal-looking local news site, alongside countless innocuous stories produced by machines as camouflage.
The scheme takes advantage of how profit-chasing has blown up the entire concept of “media literacy.” When your local paper’s website is as larded up with spammy-looking ad crud as an illegal Monday Night Football stream, these spare sites cannot possibly look any less “real.” And as newspapers die and people get more and more of their news from social media, fewer people recognize which news “brands” are supposed to be “trustworthy.”
It is easy to overstate the ominousness of Timpone’s pay-for-play enterprise. His propaganda network, like most conservative movement activity, looks to be as much a grift for its operators as it is a savvy and effective political operation. The right’s seemingly inexhaustible stock of crankish private business owners means there is always money to be made fleecing them. When a Republican hotel magnate pays for something called “DC Business Daily” to produce an article saying he is “fed up with the way the United States is dealing with China,” he is probably not getting much for his dollar besides a brief dopamine hit while reading the published product.
But conservative propaganda tends to make up in volume and reach for what it lacks in efficiency and persuasiveness. As the Times reports, one of the stories from this network of sites, a smear job on a man killed by Kyle Rittenhouse in Kenosha, Wisconsin, “was shared 22,000 times on Facebook, reaching up to 2.6 million people.” The effect of such content is probably felt less in any particular viral story than in the aggregate: People across the country are exposed constantly to news that may seem objective but that has, baked into it, right-wing values and assumptions. They get it in everything from this scammy network to Sinclair television stations to Fox News.
There are some lessons to take from the conservative commitment to heavily subsidized mass propaganda. One could probably argue that Democrats should try the same model. As I have previously noted, liberals have never fully bought into the donor-funded right-wing propaganda model, in part because most Democratic donors are unwilling to subsidize liberal media directly to any degree, let alone to the degree that the right subsidizes its media.
But there is, actually, a liberal version of this scheme, funding innocuous-looking “local news sites” around the country. That network, called “Courier Newsroom,” is the brainchild of one of the geniuses behind the utterly disastrous Iowa caucus app. It comprises eight sites, to Timpone’s more than 1,200. (Before the propaganda business, Timpone worked on algorithmically generated news, which now helps to fill all his sites with content.) Ideally, liberal-minded wealthy people would fund not low-cost content mills but actual top-tier, locally oriented reporting and analysis across the country. But, as mentioned, very few are willing to do this at a perpetual loss.
The left, broadly defined, has a very real need for mass-oriented, unapologetically political media. It will not create or sustain that media with the help of wealthy donors or an ad-based business model. The obvious other answer is subscriptions and paywalls. And, indeed, that is the only model that seems to work, in this environment, for funding particular kinds of journalism and commentary. But that also brings up the other lesson: Once you erect the paywall, people like Brian Timpone are the players who will set up shop outside the walls, to entertain everyone unwilling to pay the toll.
It is a common enough occurrence today to see talented (and gainfully employed) journalists adopt an almost scolding tone in imploring people to subscribe to their favorite news sources. This is understandable: Producing high-quality journalism is expensive, and all of us would like our publications to be self-sufficient. But what these journalists frequently ignore is that subscription models by definition self-select for an audience seeking high-quality news and exclude people who would still benefit from high-quality news but can’t or don’t want to pay for it.
If people can’t pay for local news, or won’t actively seek it out, they will inevitably learn about their world—and their community—from the news that is readily available and free. When my friends in this industry implore people to pay for news, I always think about how many people would think it’s perfectly normal to catch a Facebook link to the Lansing Sun instead.
“Paying for news” has always been an odd concept. Radio and television in the United States were historically free, once you bought the hardware. Local businesses and classified ad buyers heavily subsidized the big city newspaper at its peak. If access to disinterested reporting on local affairs is socially important—and I do think it is—we will have to find some way to produce and (perhaps more importantly) distribute it that does not rely on people who actively wish to pay for it.
There are plenty of people who are both engaged enough and economically secure enough to seek out and support particular publications directly (including The New Republic). If you’re reading this, you are probably one of them. These people have been able to sustain numerous national institutions that do incredibly important work, but this has so far proven to be a solution only for the large, established, and nationally focused press. There is simply no evidence yet that that model can work on the local level across this enormous country. (There isn’t even evidence to prove that it can sustain magazines and newspapers in the country’s largest state and second-largest city.)
News, as is commonly noted, is expensive to produce, and the people who produce it deserve to be fairly remunerated for doing so. But at some point, we (collectively, not individually) have to decide if the point of journalism is to employ journalists or to publicize useful information.
If you think of news as a commodity and citizens as consumers, it makes perfect sense to believe that people unwilling to pay for the highest-quality news deserve the crappy product they get from local TV, talk radio, and some conservative hack’s network of phony local news sites. But should it be acceptable to have a luxury tier of actually accurate and useful journalism? True information about your community is not the same as, say, furniture (except in how the cheap and crappy versions of both are contributing to societal collapse). If you accept that the responsibility of journalists is not just to produce important work but also to figure out how to disseminate that work to the widest possible audience—and to recognize that it is in a competition for attention with actual propaganda—the paywall goes from an unfortunate necessity to an active hindrance to the mission of the job.
This is a description of the present state of news, not its grim future. When Facebook reintroduced its news product, the omnipresent platform’s executives were proud to announce that they would now (finally) pay certain media outlets for their work—but those paid “partners” turned out to be the biggest brands, like The New York Times, and not the small local outlets that provide material for Facebook’s local news feature. The effects of sharing the wealth with the institutions that need it the least, leaving the rest to continue fending for themselves, should be obvious: As the authors of UNC’s “Expanding News Desert” report studied local news articles surfaced by Facebook’s algorithms (not the ones selected by the humans who curate the selection of featured national news stories), they found many of those articles “required users to subscribe in order to read the entire story.” That setup presumably bounces most readers right back to Facebook, where they might instead find something free to read from one of Mr. Timpone’s conservative sites.
The wide availability of poisonous media, and the walling off of quality journalism, are not the primary causes of America’s noxious politics. But they have done much to create the conditions for a society in which I—despite never having lived in the state, and this information therefore being of no use to me—probably know (and have known) many more of the facts about the previous Wisconsin government’s horrible deal with Foxconn than the people who have been mainlining the state’s notorious right-wing talk radio for years know. (Conversely, The Guardian recently noted that New Zealand, which has its share of fascists but has successfully frozen them out of any meaningful political power, has no Rupert Murdoch–owned media.)
The fact that we are all watching, in real time, as the institution of journalism is replaced by corporate P.R. and right-wing propaganda is not a problem in need of solutions from business schools, consulting firms, or Silicon Valley. It is a democratic problem, in need of a democratic solution. The paywall will save The Atlantic. It has already failed to save American journalism.