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Oct. 21, 2019, 1:12 p.m.

A local journalist has uncovered a network of dozens of masquerading local news sites pushed by a conservative consultant — and it’s not the first time.

As local news becomes less profitable as a commercial business (and re-spun as more of a public good) but still retains high levels of trust, some political players see its situation as an opportunity. Among them has been a series of conservative news sites with opaque funding that focus almost entirely on portraying governments as wasteful and corrupt.

Former Nieman Labber (and current Voxer) Laura McGann traced this effort here way back in 2010 (and later expanded it at Washington Monthly):

It’s been speculated that as newspapers’ decline leaves a void in watchdog journalism, nonprofit groups would come along to fill it at least part of it in. But not all those groups are going to share a newspaper’s approach to journalism.

Last fall, the conservative Goldwater Institute hired a former newspaper reporter to “expose government corruption and abuse.” Now, at least two other conservative organizations — Americans for Prosperity, the libertarian organization backing the Tea Party movement, and the Yankee Institute, a free market think tank in Connecticut — are both advertising jobs for investigative reporters who can find examples of, as the Yankee Institute calls it, “questionable government spending” or, as Americans for Prosperity puts it, “wasteful government spending.”

The vestigial credibility readers seem to attach to local news — even local news outlets they’re unfamiliar with — has been abused by mis- and disinformation peddlers repeatedly. Russian operatives seeking to influence the 2016 election created social media accounts attached to fake local news sites: @ElPasoTopNews, @MilwaukeeVoice, @CamdenCityNews, @Seattle_Post. Perhaps that cycle’s most iconic fake news story came from the “Denver Guardian.”

In the realm of more legitimate politics, there have been efforts from politicians in both parties, with questionable ethics. Senator Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) set up a sketchy looking site called “HealthNewsNJ.com” that featured attacks against his 2018 Republican opponent, disclosing its origins only in tiny print at the bottom of the page. The Missouri Download, designed with Republican red, only notes its origins with the state’s Democratic State Committee in tiny print; it went up as part of the failed reelection campaign of Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill. Vice has reported on plans by the Democratic super PAC Priorities USA to launch outlets in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Wisconsin (though Priorities disputes the “news” label).

But more of the activity appears to be on the right. “The Free Telegraph” states nowhere on its homepage that it’s published by the Republican Governors Association. “The California Republican” sprinkles heroic headlines about GOP Rep. Devin Nunes (“Devin Nunes Exposes Collusion, Left Gets Abusive”) until you scroll down to see “Paid for by the Devin Nunes Campaign Committee” in tiny type at the bottom. Politico and Snopes uncovered a network of sites in key 2020 states (The Ohio Star, The Minnesota Sun, The Tennessee Star) created by Republican consultants and mislabeling people paid to elect a GOP candidate as “investigative journalists” who were now covering them.

In all of these cases, the issue is less about politicians promoting their points of view than hiding their affiliation with the content — making it hard for a reader who would naturally bring more skepticism to a campaign ad than they would a local news story.

The latest action is in Michigan, where Lansing State Journal reporter Carol Thompson reported on almost 40 new local sites in Michigan promisingly named Lansing Sun, Ann Arbor Times, Thumb Reporter, UP Gazette, and more:

Bradley Cameron, CEO of Situation Management Group, describes himself as CEO of Metric Media in his online biography page. Cameron did not respond to an email requesting comment.

His biography also says he has worked for pharmaceutical manufacturers, technology companies, and is retained by national conservative leaders to respond to “government targeting of their operations and initiatives.”

According to the sites’ privacy policy pages, they are operated by Locality Labs LLC, a Delaware company that similarly affiliated with a network of local sites in Illinois and Maryland, and business sites in nearly every U.S. state.

The publications Locality Labs operates in Illinois, which include both websites and printed papers, provide different descriptions of their editorial direction.

West Cook News, for example, says its “core belief” is in “limited government, in the constructive role of the free market and in the rights of citizens to choose the size and scope of their government and the role it should play in their society.” It is funded in part by advocacy groups who believe the same.

The story of how traditional local news, especially in rural (less financially concentrated) communities, is being decimated is not new. There are several well-intentioned efforts to reimagine and rebuild local news as a vital source of quality information in communities, as this article from Pew Stateline rounds up. But the creation of political outlets is another longtime, less savory ploy. One watchful Nieman Lab reader notes this D.C.-based company that is sitting on as many as 1,200 locally-focused URLs from AlaskaTribune.com to WichitaLedger.com. As the 2020 campaign gets into full swing in the U.S., so do ways to try to deceive news consumers.

Just don’t ask this question the day after The New York Times caused a Twitter kerfluffle with its feature on Ann Arbor’s local news:

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