In late October 2020, The New York Times released an investigatory story centred around Brian Timpone. You probably haven’t heard his name before, but if you live in the US, you have most likely seen a story created by his tentacular news presence. Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism reported a shadowy connection between 450 supposed local news sites in December 2019, and in the run-up to last year’s presidential election, this intricate network tripled. Using publicly available data sets and taking bits from legitimate sources, over 90 per cent of the stories on the over 1,200 “local” sites were proved to be algorithmically generated. Similar to the questionable meat additive underpinning American fast food, these content mills have been considered to be the pink slime of the news industry.
Brian Timpone is the CEO of various news platforms, the most prominent being Metric Media. Much like the empty posturing of a fast-fashion graphic tee passively telling someone to vote, its company’s homepage made of gentle green and white hues vaguely states that it’s “giving a voice to every citizen.” Beneath this, the company loosely encourages readers to “pitch stories, read about your friends and neighbours, or follow your favourite issues.” By framing its opening statement in the language of freelancing, it appears harmless—similar to many other gig economy jobs within journalism.
According to The New York Times, about 25 per cent of local news sources in the US have gone under since 2004. A peer of mine from my home state of New Hampshire, Ian Lenahan, works as a reporter for Seacoast Media Group, one of our town’s long-standing local news sources. As a recent graduate, he noted that his position is “a definite outlier from those within my college cohort,” many of whom—“about 60 per cent,” he states—are working in “mill-type” jobs.
Many professional freelancers or recent graduates find financial stability in employers like Metric Media, which fewer local news companies are able to offer. However, Lenahan suggests that individuals such as Timpone play into “perception and division by masking voices as truth-seekers while aiming to discredit others and further sow division within the public sphere.” This decline of legitimate regional news sources has allowed for the bottom feeders of capitalism to piece together remaining scraps into something resembling what we once knew.
Metric Media provides a service through which anonymous parties can pay for articles to appear on local news sites. Tax records and campaign-finance reports revealed that the network received a minimum of $1.7 million from Republican campaigns and other conservative groups. Although the company repeatedly mentions that its “approach is to provide objective, data-driven information without political bias,” this partisan leaning says otherwise.
A freelance journalist interviewed by The New York Times who unknowingly worked for a branch of Timpone’s tangled media empire noted that “assignments typically come with precise instructions on whom to interview and what to write,” and that “in some cases, those instructions are written by the network’s clients, who are sometimes the subjects of the articles.” While there are liberal equivalents to these partisan content papers, Timpone’s vast network is set apart due to its size, which now is double that of Gannett, America’s largest newspaper chain.
Under each of Metric Media’s websites’ ‘About’ section, it’s stated that it “was established to fill the void in community news after years of decline in local reporting by legacy media. This site is one of hundreds nationwide to inform citizens about news in their local communities.” Despite this embedded emphasis on the local and its restoration, Metric Media is the perfect antithesis to this. The pay-to-play business model hidden behind its ambiguous content creation eschews the traditional tenets of truth behind journalism by directly tying the viewpoints of the article to those funding them.
According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)—similar to when your favourite influencer has to include #ad in their Instagram captions—it’s a requirement for articles to note if and who they’re advertised by. However, most of these sites fail to provide an author’s name, and, for some, it takes many new tabs to trace it back to its source and umbrella company.
Despite running on an ardent, infamous “Make America Great Again” platform, Trump’s four years brought little change to the small towns which passionately supported him. After his win in November 2016, the then President-elect took to YouTube to announce his plans for his first 100 days in office. Here, he outlined that he would “bring back our jobs.” Like most of his statements, this was baseless hot air, causing the swamp to boil rather than drain.
Even without considering the detrimental economic effects of COVID-19, since 1997, the US has a net loss of over 91,000 manufacturing plants and 5 million jobs associated with them. According to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), during the Trump administration, almost 1,800 factories disappeared between 2016 and 2018. Rural areas such as the regions where these local news sites are most prevalent in replacing legitimate media sources have been hit the hardest by evaporating industries that are shipped offshores to lower production costs. Due to these factors, distrust continues to grow as local economies deteriorate, thus bolstering the rise of these questionable news outlets as citizens attempt to place their hope in something outside the national systems which have failed them.
In this era of disinformation, it’s worth repeating that it’s more crucial than ever to understand where news is coming from. However, with an increasingly heavy onus placed on the consumer to sort through layers of advertising sludge and opaque funding, large-scale intervention on small-scale news is necessary. The Biden administration has the gargantuan task of making America (somewhat) normal again, but have parts of it fallen too deep into the digital rabbit hole to recover? Keeping the local actually local will be one step towards accomplishing this distant goal.