Local newspapers are laying off their staffs across the US, hit by the economic impact of the coronavirus. Meanwhile, a new breed of deep-pocketed local publications such as UpNorthNews in Wisconsin and The Gander Newsroom in Michigan are filling the void.
Sometimes their coronavirus news coverage is no different from a traditional regional publication, writing about grocery shortages or Wisconsin’s disastrous mid-pandemic local election. But often the content has a partisan bent, criticizing Republican leaders and praising Democratic ones.
This bent is particularly apparent in the articles marketed to new readers through advertising. For example, articles that bash Donald Trump’s belated response to the pandemic were promoted with more than $120,000 worth of Facebook ads.
Those sites, and others focused on North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Arizona, are part of the Courier Newsroom network started by Acronym, a liberal political group. All in swing states, their stated aim is to fill the vacuum left by hollowed-out regional news outlets with shareable local news. And they actually have reporters covering local issues. But the effort is also designed to help elect Democrats, by delivering partisan news stories to swing-state voters on Facebook.
It’s apparently part of a plan to play catch-up with the massive Trump digital operation that helped him win the election in 2016. Partisan news outlets aren’t new in the United States, but the internet’s messy informational landscape and microtargeted advertising make it all the more difficult to distinguish between bona fide political campaigning and journalism.
Writing about the president’s failings is “standard accountability, watchdog-of-the-highest-office-in-the-country kind of thing,” said Carrie Brown, director of social journalism at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York. But the notion of targeting it directly at specific voters in swing states, “that is interesting and more problematic.”
Over the past few weeks, more than $80,000 in Facebook ads from five of Courier’s local websites promoted two stories, “Trump is Trying to End Health Care for Millions in the Middle of a Pandemic” and “Officials Tried To Warn Trump A Pandemic Was Coming In January. He Didn’t Listen.”
A mixed bag of content
The news on the sites—both local and national—is factual, but with a specific partisan lens.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, the Courier Network sites ran ads on Facebook promoting two distinct sets of articles. The first were essentially puff pieces about Democratic politicians in swing districts, “51% of Americans Live in a Child Care Desert — Here’s What One Rep. Abby Finkenauer is Doing About That” or “Rep. Gil Cisneros introduced a bill to expand the VA support network.”
The second were articles listing statistics about economic decline under Trump, like “There’s Big Trouble Ahead For Pennsylvania’s Economy.” In Arizona, a third set promoted articles about perceived failings by Sen. Martha McSally, a Republican.
All of this was presumably meant to keep the focus on Trump failing to revive the economy in distressed regions—and keeping Democratic incumbents’ accomplishments, however small, at the top of voters’ minds.
NewsGuard, an organization that rates the trustworthiness of media outlets, found 30 Courier stories boosting newly-elected moderate Democrats from Republican-leaning districts between the company’s launch in November 2019 and February 2020. NewsGuard found no equivalent Courier articles on the sites about congressional Republicans, according to an op-ed in The Washington Post.
Coronavirus coverage by the Courier outlets has followed the same pattern.
“Coronavirus Expected To Take 200K American Lives. Trump’s Response Continues To Be Far From Comforting,” blares a headline on a Courier website. The article is by the Associated Press, originally headlined by the agency with a neutral: “As virus makes goodbyes hard, fears of many more rise in US.”
Even some of the state-specific coronavirus stories focus on responsible Democratic politicians and an irresponsible president, like an article headlined “Trump Is Mad Gov. Whitmer Criticized His Coronavirus Response“ from Gander Newsroom, the Michigan site.
At the same time, the websites appear to have succeeded at their goal of providing additional local news reporting. UpNorthNews, the Wisconsin site, had several reporters at the scene of long lines of Wisconsites risking illness in order to vote in Tuesday’s chaotic primary election, which was held despite the Democratic governor’s attempts to postpone it amid the pandemic. The outlets write about statewide Covid-19 case and death tallies and how local businesses are dealing with the pandemic. But the non-political local stories, like “How Michiganders Will Still Worship For Easter — From A Distance,” don’t appear to have been advertised much, if at all, on Facebook.
Ads get the content to readers—and voters
According to Bloomberg, the Courier Newsroom’s model isn’t to create destination news sites readers visit on their own, but rather to spread the articles via social media, including microtargeted online advertising. Far more people see news articles from the Courier Newsroom network via Facebook ads—at least 25 million in the past month, according to Facebook data—than visit the network’s websites, which got about 100,000 visits total, according to estimates by SimilarWeb, a digital market intelligence company. Most of those visits came from links on social media.
Those 25 million Facebook ad views aren’t just anybody. Many Courier Newsroom network ads were microtargeted to specific people—presumably, to swing voters—by matching the voters’ phone numbers in a spreadsheet uploaded to Facebook by Courier with the phone number Facebook has on file for individual users. (How would a brand-new media outlet have individuals’ phone numbers? Targeting information for another ad offers a hint: at least some came from TargetSmart, a left-leaning political data firm that sells information on voters.)
A Facebook ad about Trump and the pandemic from “Cardinal & Pine,” a North Carolina-focused Courier outlet, was seen disproportionately by people who were young and female, a group that turns out at a relatively low rate, but tends to support Democrats.
Courier’s Facebook strategy resembles that of political campaigns. “Everybody who clicks on, likes, or shares an article,” Acronym founder Tara McGowan told Bloomberg, “we get that data back to create a lookalike audience”—a Facebook ad targeting method—“to find other people with similar attributes in the same area. So we continually grow our ability to find people.”
Who is behind Courier?
To compete against a president whose tweets, speeches and actions have dominated social media for almost five years, the Courier Newsroom’s move is apparently to create a left-leaning media counterweight. In contrast with many right-wing news efforts, the Courier Newsroom stories are all true enough—especially if compared to political ads, rather than to unbiased journalism.
Acronym has also been linked to Shadow, the maker of the vote-reporting app that failed spectacularly during the Iowa caucuses. McGowan, the Acronym founder, is a Democratic strategist who used to work for the Obama reelection campaign and Democratic SuperPAC Priorities USA.
“Without new innovative models for journalism at scale,” she told Bloomberg, “we’re losing the information war to verified liars pouring millions of dollars into Facebook.” She said she was raising $25 million for the Courier project.
The structure and backing of the entire operation is hazy. Acronym is a 501(c)4, a type of non-profit that is sometimes called a “dark money” group because it doesn’t have to disclose its donors. But according to Federal Election Committee filings, top donors to Acronym’s political action comittee, Pacronym, hail from hedge funds, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood.
And the entanglement with the political establishment further muddies the water. The Daily Beast reported that the liberal consulting firm Lockwood Strategy, which is owned by Acronym, helped with staffing the Courier outlets while also being paid by the Virginia Democratic Party.
“In other words, one McGowan company was drawing a paycheck from the party as another pumped out news content boosting its election prospects,” writes Lachlan Markay at the Daily Beast.
Courier’s focus on what it calls Trump’s “haphazard and at times, dismissive” handling of the coronavirus epidemic matches that of Pacronym, which began running such ads in Michigan in late Feburary.
A journalistic gray area
Looking at a Courier site, it’s not at all obvious that the publication is funded by a partisan operation.
The sites do not disclose their links to Acronym on their homepages, Facebook ads, or Facebook pages. The sites’ “About” or “Ethics and Standards” pages do list Acronym as its “majority funder” and a “501(c)4 progressive nonprofit organization.” There’s no mention of Acronym’s explicit partisan goal of helping Democrats win elections.
(The “About us” page for the Courier network claims that “Courier Newsroom and its affiliated sites are independent from ACRONYM”—but it’s not clear what that means, given that McGowan, Acronym founder, has given media interviews describing the Courier Newsroom’s goals at length.) Acronym, Courier, and several of the Courier newsrooms did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
While the Courier sites don’t fabricate information, Gabby Deutch, author of the NewsGuard op-ed told Quartz, this relative lack of transparency is why her organization has assessed the Courier websites as “generally unreliable.” “They are not at all upfront about where their funding is coming from,” Deutch said, pointing out that other news organizations that are run by nonprofits, like the Texas Tribune or ProPublica, disclose major donors.
Even if they did disclose more about their funding and their goals, the targeted advertising is “very clearly political in nature,” Deutch said.
The anti-Trump ads from Courier focus on the same points as Pacronym and other Democratic political groups, but if they look like news articles, the audience sees them differently than the same content coming from a politician, Deutch said.. “And so it gives those stories perhaps more legitimacy.”
“If it’s offering local information that is valuable to people and truthful, then that’s not necessarily a bad thing,” said Brown, from the CUNY journalism school, especially since the local news industry is being decimated. “But it can be problematic if people don’t really understand the possible motivations.”
“It’s dangerous if it’s undermining journalists’ purpose and people’s ability to distinguish who are the people that I can trust to give me accurate verified information,” Brown added.
The informational environment is already chaotic. Once news outlets target their news to a specific political demographic, in order to influence voting behavior, the gray area gets even grayer.
“Let’s say for the sake of argument, all the articles are very transparent and factual, but then, it does feel a lot more gross that the Facebook ads are maybe playing on people’s political sensibilities in order to get them to click,” Brown said.
The Courier Newsroom network isn’t the only partisan local news outlet to have sprung up in the past few years.
Metric Media runs a broad network of Republican-leaning local news outlets, which similarly promote partisan articles on Facebook. The network, with nearly 50 sites mostly in Michigan, has spent only around $5,000 on political ads on Facebook. However, its coronavirus-related Facebook ads don’t appear to be partisan—instead including news about factory closures and soup kitchens. Other ads are critical of Michigan‘s Democratic governor Gretchen Whitmer, however.
Metric Media’s sites, which say they aim to “fill the void in community news,” feature some original content, often heavily citing traditional media outlets, along with press releases and fill-in-the-blanks articles from published data about state workers’ salaries and schools.
The Tennessee Star and Michigan Star are part of a broadly similar Republican-leaning network of self-described local news outlets, though neither is running Facebook ads promoting their news stories. Ironically, one article posted on those websites, republished from the right wing publication the Daily Caller, is about the Courier Newsroom network and is titled: “Inside the Dark Money Dem Group Using an Umbrella Network to Flay Trump Over His Virus Response.”
Politicians themselves have created Facebook pages with names that sound like independent news outlets to push negative news stories about their opponents, like “Ohio Newswire” from former Democratic candidate for Ohio governor Richard Cordray.
So perhaps the Courier project is a harbinger of what’s to come?
“I think that we probably will see more of this,” Deutch said. “The barrier to entry is just so low.” Setting up a website is relatively easy and buying ads on Facebook is generally cheaper than getting a TV advertisement.
“In the 1800s, there were so many different competing newspapers of different political persuasions that were funded in all different kinds of ways,” Brown said. “Maybe we are starting a gradual return to something where there’s a lot more noise in the system and there’s a lot of complications and problems with that. But there’s also advantages to that in that it’s helping make up for some of the gaps in the system, and it’s giving people more choices.”