The Nieman Journalism Lab has some bad news.
In a study tracking hundreds of "hyperpartisan" news websites across the country, the Harvard-based organization has exposed many that are “masquerading” as state and local reporting. In reality, they’re often funded and operated by “government officials, political candidates, PACS, and political party operatives.”
Based on previous research by Columbia University’s Priyanjana Bengani, Neiman sifted through these hundreds of urls and pinpointed them on a map of the U.S., all to study how these left or right-leaning news sources are being deployed and where. Minnesota has at least 15 of these little pins studded across the metro and in the greater regions of the state – all with a conservative tilt.
In fact, the vast majority of the sites listed in our state belong to the same network: Metric Media, which claims to have over 1,000 different news sites. Titles include SW Minnesota Today, SC Minnesota News, and South Hennepin News.
You’ll find a lot of the same headlines shared between each, along with an astonishing variety of stock photos depicting stacks of cash money changing hands.
Some stories center around oddly specific statistics, like “Inventories in furniture and related products industry fall 0.5 percent in February,” which appeared on the St. Cloud Sun website on Wednesday, or entire articles about the number of students in a single grade at a single school who took the Minnesota Comprehensive Achievement test three years ago.
In short, it looks like news. Local news, even. But on second glance, it seems both weird and a little bit padded -- other than the more detailed, quote-heavy stories about Republican lawmakers and talking points. (Reopening Minnesota, for example, is a common theme.)
According to Metric Media’s mission statement, its goal is to “restore community-based reporting through modern platforms that make local news possible again.” The network, it says, works with “hundreds of freelance reporters around the country who adhere to strict journalistic standards,” and there’s “no political bias or favoritism.”
You won’t find many ads on any of the sites. That may be because, as Metric’s website claims, their funding comes from “donation and grants” from “contributors who care about restoring local news in their communities.”
According to Bengani’s research, Metric shares privacy policies, servers, and analytics identifiers with four other gargantuan, politically connected pseudo-news networks, including the Record network (founded by conservative businessman Brian Timpone) and Franklin Archer (the CEO of which is Timpone’s brother, Michael).
The New York Times looked into Metric last year and found its chief executive, Bradley Cameron, had political connections of his own. On his online biography, he says he has been “retained by national political organizations” to “direct responses to government targeting of their operations and initiatives.” He also says that in the ‘90s, he “served… as a senior advisor to the Republican strategy leader in the U.S. House of Representatives.”
“He is presently retained by national donors to direct a fund that defends First Amendment rights, by an investor group to form a media enterprise, and by hospitality industry asset owners to form a national organization that will represent their interests during the economic recovery [from COVID-19],” the bio says.
Neiman draws a few conclusions from its preliminary analysis of the data. For one thing, right-leaning sites are far more common than left-leaning ones, which only comprised eight (none in Minnesota) of the 429 identified by the study. (The report predicts that this may change as Democrats get wind of this strategy and start leaning into it themselves.)
For another, conservative-leaning sites tend to focus more on small communities than regions or states, particularly when it comes to swing states. Minnesota, which Republican candidates have been hoping to turn red this year, has the sixth-highest number of fake news sites in the nation.
Most troubling of all, Neiman points out, is the sheer number of these sites overall, and the hyper-locality of their content. Studies have shown that people tend to gravitate toward and trust local news more than national outlets. If these fake news sites start crowding that niche, that could change.
“To the extent that these types of sites continue to proliferate and possibly replace traditional local news organizations, the partisanship that has come to characterize our national-level journalism could increasingly characterize our local journalism,” the report says.
This is by no means a complete list of every bunk or hyper-partisan news source in the country. The Minnesota Sun, for example, is part of a group of publications, funded by conservative candidates, run by a handful of Republican consultants, and deployed in battleground states that will figure prominently in the 2020 election.