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July 13, 2020, 9:31 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Hundreds of hyperpartisan sites are masquerading as local news. This map shows if there’s one near you.

We found that while the (few) left-leaning sites prioritize statewide reporting, right-leaning sites are more focused on local reporting, indicating the potential for these sites to exacerbate polarization in local communities.

The growth of partisan media masquerading as state and local reporting is a troubling trend we’ve seen emerge amid the financial declines of local news organizations. But what do these outlets mean for journalism in American communities?

Using previous research and news reports as a guide, we’ve mapped the locations of more than 400 partisan media outlets — often funded and operated by government officials, political candidates, PACs, and political party operatives — and found, somewhat unsurprisingly, that these outlets are emerging most often in swing states, raising a concern about the ability of such organizations to fill community information needs while prioritizing the electoral value of an audience.

We found that while the (few) left-leaning sites prioritize statewide reporting, right-leaning sites are more focused on local reporting, suggesting different strategies for engaging with targeted audiences and indicating the potential for these sites to exacerbate polarization in local communities.

Here’s our map of how these sources are distributed across the U.S., along with their partisan orientation:

We used research by Priyanjana Bengani at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism as a starting point. Bengani identified 450 sites that are part of 12 state networks operated by five corporate entities. To do so, she used shared registrant information from the WHOIS database of registered domains, shared IP addresses, and shared analytics identifiers to identify the scope and boundaries of networks. This kind of detailed detective work was necessary because these sites are often opaque about their ownership and/or financial backing.

Bengani identified five organizations operating these networks, all with conservative political ties. Conservative businessman Brian Timpone founded the Record network in 2004. As disclosed on Record publications, the network is owned by the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform, an affiliate of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Timpone also runs Locality Labs/LocalLabs, which operates only in Florida. Franklin Archer, whose CEO is Timpone’s brother Michael, operates a local news network with over 100 sites and a metro business network with 51 sites. Dan Proft, who ran the conservative super PAC Liberty Principles, created the Local Government Information Services (LGIS) network in Illinois in 2016. Metric Media shares privacy policies, servers, and analytics identifiers with the other four networks. Of the conservative sites we’ve mapped, only the four sites that make up the Star News Network are not affiliated in any way with one of these five organizations. However, like many of the others, the Star is not transparent about its funding or the involvement of some staff in political campaigns.

As the map indicates, there are considerably more conservative-leaning sites than liberal-leaning sites. Only 8 of the 429 sites we’ve identified so far are liberal-leaning. This potentially could change as left-wing funders and operatives seek to counteract similar efforts by the right. Courier Newsroom, funded by the progressive nonprofit Acronym, has newsrooms in six swing states and also publishes a politics site for Latinx readers. Others are independent sites founded by former politicians, candidates, and operatives, so we have labeled partisanship based on the founder’s party identification.

Our map shows the location of these sites. For state-based sites, we used the state capital as a proxy location unless otherwise indicated. For local and hyperlocal sites, we determined location from places referenced on the homepage, in About pages, on Contact pages, and in classified ads.

There are considerably more sites focused on local and hyperlocal communities than on regions or states. Of the 429 sites we’ve mapped, 253 are focused on specific cities or specific neighborhoods. Ninety-five are focused on specific regions, defined here as a group of communities or counties, and 77 are focused on entire states.

We suspect many of the local sites are not based in or actually operating within the communities they serve. Timpone had previously operated “local” news sites using content produced by writers based in the Philippines and using fake bylines. But identifying these locations gives a sense of who the operatives who fund them are targeting with their content.

We added a layer to the map that indicates the relative partisanship of each Congressional district using the Cook Partisan Voting Index (PVI), “a measurement of how strongly a United States congressional district or state leans toward the Democratic or Republican Party, compared to the nation as a whole.” This helps determine, at least at surface level, whether these sites are meant to appeal to more partisan districts or to battleground districts. (This layer of the map becomes clearer when one zooms in on specific regions or states.)

We found that the conservative sites are more focused on local communities than on broader regions and states, particularly communities in swing states. The five states with the most conservative-leaning local sites are Iowa, North Carolina, Michigan, Illinois, and Florida; of that list, only Illinois is not a swing state. The state with the sixth-highest number of these sites is Minnesota, also considered a swing state. The liberal-leaning sites are focused on the statewide reporting. Every swing state except New Hampshire has at least one liberal-leaning news site, and Virginia and Wisconsin each have two.

This is a preliminary and basic analysis. However, it points toward a troubling reality. First, 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, potentially amplifying the political polarization that is already affecting the country, and potentially undermining effective self-governance at the local level. In future research, we hope to explore whether these partisan sites produce misinformation more often than their more traditional counterparts. If that is the case, it could have significant implications for well-informed local self-governance.

Could the future of local journalism be driven in large part by a community’s value and/or contestability in state or federal political races? In future research, we hope to address that new type of local journalism divide.

A previous version of this article and map included the 16 newsrooms of States Newsroom, a nonprofit network of local news sites that previously received backing from the liberal Hopewell Fund and did not begin disclosing its donors until this year. Its sites cannot be accurately described as “hyperpartisan sites…masquerading as local news,” and many of its staff are longtime journalists. Mary Cornatzer, States Newsroom’s national editor, wrote to us: “Our Georgia editor is on the board of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation; our Virginia editor and two of his staff members were on the Richmond Times Dispatch staff; our Iowa editor has covered Iowa politics for 30 years and was most recently a political columnist and then opinion page editor for the Des Moines Register; our Louisiana editor was on the Times Picayune team that won the Pulitzer for Katrina coverage; our Florida editor covered schools for the Chicago Tribune for many many years. I could go on and on. All staff bios are listed on each newsroom’s website.” — Ed.

Philip M. Napoli is the James R. Shepley Professor of Public Policy in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, where he is also a faculty affiliate with the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy. He leads the News Measures Research Project, which is supported by the Democracy Fund. Jessica Mahone is an associate in research at the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy at Duke University, where she supports the News Measures Research Project and the Tech & Check Cooperative.

POSTED     July 13, 2020, 9:31 a.m.
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