When I talk to people about the dire state of local news, they often tell me that they aren’t too worried about the local free press disappearing because modern, digital media will replace it.
If only. Rather than reliable news sources, America is getting partisan pseudo-news.
“I am in my mid-50s, and I have two children ages 17 and 25,” a reader recently wrote me in an email. “As far as they are concerned, news is acquired from a number of sources and a paper newspaper is not one of them. Not even an online newspaper.
“Newspapers are living on borrowed time and for some reason have not put a great deal of effort into capturing the younger demographic.”
I disagree. Newspapers have put a lot of effort into trying to capture younger audiences. Many were slow to transform, but in the past decade most have shifted to a digital-first model. That means they publish their content online first, rather than as an afterthought to the print edition. Multimedia content and social engagement are meant to appeal not just to younger readers but to all modern news consumers.
They’re still struggling, though.
Sensing an opportunity, news websites have sprung up, but they aren’t what news consumers thought they’d be. The new wave of news sites reflects the deep political divides in the country.
Jessica Mahone and Philip Napoli, researchers at the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy at Duke University, inventoried what they called “partisan media masquerading as state and local reporting” in hundreds of communities across the country. They reported their findings in an article for Harvard’s Nieman Lab.
These websites look like a legitimate news source. They have headlines, stories, reporters and so on. Anyone who didn’t know better would think they were just reporting the news.
But they aren’t just reporting the news. The sites choose their stories and frame them in ways to support political goals. Many of their stories are just regurgitated news releases from politicians, candidates and advocacy groups that the operators support.
Perhaps the biggest giveaway that you’re reading partisan news is that they often don’t have advertising. There’s no need to sell ads when there are partisan donors to pay the bills. Besides, advertising distracts from the message.
Most of the more than 400 sites documented in the report are conservative. The researchers identified four in Washington, all with a conservative bend. The most notable is the Washington Business Daily in Olympia.
Progressives are in on the game, too, though. The liberal Courier Newsroom network has state news sites in seven politically competitive states. A Democratic-aligned digital organization called Acronym created and funded it. According to Politico, Courier has spent more than $1.4 million on Facebook ads “to promote its flattering articles and videos about more than a dozen endangered House Democrats.”
There’s nothing wrong with partisan sites pushing their agenda if they are transparent about it. It’s when they try to hide their agenda that things get dicey. Free speech and a free press are siblings, but they aren’t twins.
Partisan sites insist they are trustworthy news sources. “Franklin Archer brings coverage to underreported areas of American life. From community news to regional government to national legal policy, our publishing network covers a spectrum of vital information,” that site declares.
As partisan-driven stories from seemingly legitimate sites splash across social media, news consumers won’t know what to believe or, worse, will believe everything.
That’s not to say that sites like Washington Business Daily and Courier are devoid of good journalism. They have reporters on staff who sometimes dig into issues that other publications miss. It’s just important to remember that they are picking which stories to cover and how to cover them with a partisan goal in mind. A progressive site isn’t likely to write a scathing piece about Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, and a conservative one isn’t going to champion a tax increase.
Courier Editor-in-Chief Lindsey Schrupp, a University of Washington graduate, says she employs professional journalists on the ground in the states they cover. “We are not trying to replace local newspapers; we are adding digital local news outlets to the landscape with a focus on fighting right-wing misinfo(rmation) through local reporting,” she wrote in an email.
Therein lies the rub. Where Schrupp sees right-wing misinformation, the other side sees truth. Conservative sites believe they fight misinformation from the left. While there’s an imbalance between which side produces more misinformation these days, neither side is pure.
All of which leaves the future of news in an even more precarious situation than many people realize. Partisans will pay for red- and blue-tinted news, but fewer and fewer people seem willing to pay for black and white.