Unmasking pink slime: A shadowy world of partisan sites deceptively pose as local news


If there were such a thing as the 10 commandments of journalism, surely “pink slime” would make the list. In other words, thou shall not create a political website in a local paper’s image, nor bear false political motives.

Pink slime websites are loosely defined as partisan sites masquerading as local news and funded by dark money. The sites chip away at the credibility of local journalism, a trust that is almost sacred in these times of dis- and misinformation. While national media's reputation takes an hour-by-hour beating by pundits and their followers, numerous studies and polls have shown that local news organizations have sustained more trust even while struggling to survive. Political actors, aware of this, have tried for years to capitalize on this trust, creating thousands of websites with locally sounding names to push their political agendas.

The caretakers of journalism, those disciples who are paid to observe it, study it and teach it, speak of pink slime sites in similar ways that police talk about internet scams that target the elderly or naive. Because, well, they use similar tactics.

But pink slime sites, as distasteful as they might seem to those who hold journalism values dear, are not illegal. Larger freedoms, protected by the U.S. Constitution, are at play. The journalism industry is still trying to figure out what, if anything, can be done about them.

NewsGuard plays a role in this space, using AI to help programmatic advertisers direct ads to reputable sites. NewsGuard also helps track false narratives and creates media literacy tools for citizens and educators. The business keeps track of pink slime sites, adopting a term initially coined to describe a slurry of ground meat treated with antibacterial ammonia. 

As of January 2024, NewsGuard identified 1,177 pink slime sites across the United States, representing both sides of the political spectrum, with innocuous-sounding names, like The Main Street Sentinel and Metric Media. That number is down slightly from a 2022 accounting, which had identified 1,202 such sites.

But NewsGuard warns that the number will rise as election season heats up. Some sites go inactive or stop publishing content between election cycles, but that shouldn’t be interpreted as a decline in the pink slime tactics.

“Local news remains one of the more trusted sources of news to many people,” said NewsGuard Co-CEO Gordon Crovitz. “This trust factor is one reason partisans on both sides launch local sites that they present as independent, but that are secretly funded by action committees or other partisan groups. They are looking to take advantage of the local trust local sites have built up, often over generations of quality journalism. For example, a reader might expect the Copper Courier in Arizona to be an independent newspaper founded during the copper rush of the 1800s. Instead, it's a left-wing outlet secretly supported by a left-wing PAC.”

Crovitz noted there are nearly as many pink slime sites as U.S. daily newspapers. In 2022, NewsGuard reported that pink slime sites used targeted Facebook advertisements to grow their audiences.

While NewsGuard, a private enterprise, aims to alert the public to the disingenuous nature of these sites — and several national publications have published articles on pink slime — others believe the government should be actively regulating them.

Though the Constitution protects political and commercial speech, the government actively regulates election and campaign financing. There are rules about reporting donations and expenditures tied to elections, even though the emergence of political action committees (PACs) created a whack-a-mole effect in following campaign money. However, in those same rules, certain regulations have been carved out for the press, which can do things such as endorse candidates without government interference.

In addition to the idea that political parties are piggybacking on local news’ reputations, they’ve also sought refuge from funding transparency under the regulatory protections for the press.

Phil Napoli, a professor at Duke University and director of the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy, has been studying whether the Federal Election Commission should put in more effort in determining whether an operation that gets the press exception is truly a press operation and not a political one.

“If campaign funds are used to create a website, that should be a campaign communication,” Napoli said. “But let’s say you use those funds, run them through intermediaries, and it’s hard to determine where it’s coming from. You create a website and call it the Durham News; you’ve probably effectively done an end-around around the campaign laws.

“As we approach the next election, it would be nice if the Federal Elections Commission was more rigorous in applying these standards. That’s what they’re there for,” he said.

Napoli wrote a 38-page paper on the subject. In it, he notes that one of the primary goals of the First Amendment is to promote an informed citizenry. He explained that the Federal Elections Campaign Act of 1971, which created the FEC, “serves as a means of assuring that political campaign communication operates under established disclosure requirements and expenditure limitations; and that, at the same time, press entities remain free to engage in the full range of political reporting, analysis, commentary and endorsements that are part and parcel of the journalistic enterprise.”

Among the regulations on the books are what’s known as “coordinated communications,” which are designed to influence elections. Political groups and candidates must post disclaimers on their public communications and file disclosure reports for such communications. When pink slime websites are created and coordinated communications aren’t noted, they sidestep FEC rules.

Napoli’s paper noted that the practice had roots in the National Rifle Association (NRA) when then-executive vice president Wayne LaPierre said, “If you own the news operation, you can say whatever you want.” The NRA launched its own daily, three-hour satellite radio news program. Political operatives have been pushing the envelope ever since.

In 2012, journalist Ryan Zickgraf blew the whistle on pink slime's origins on an episode of “This American Life” with reporter Sarah Koenig. In a 2022 Washington Post Outlook piece, he explained that he worked for a company called Journatic, which hired poorly paid freelancers, sometimes based in “virtual sweatshops” in the Philippines, to write stories — often plagiarized — for pennies. After the fallout, Jouratic folded, but the owner of that company, Brian Timpone, hooked up with a conservative media pundit to build an empire of websites called Metric Media. Zickgraf wrote in that 2022 article that Metric Media boasted that it published over 5 million news articles monthly and claimed to be the largest local news producer in the United States. The Columbia Journalism Review in 2022, citing research by the Tow Center, reported that PACs backed by the oil and gas industry funneled $1.6 million into Metric Media.

While pink slime tactics evolve, some media professionals wonder how effective they are and question whether the government should intervene.

Dan Kennedy, journalism professor at Northeastern University and co-author of “What Works in Community News”

“I think that when you look at them in their current state, I don’t know that they mean a heck of a lot,” said Dan Kennedy, a journalism professor at Northeastern University. “When I’ve looked at what we’ve got around here in the Boston area, I’m just really perplexed at what the heck is even going on. They have extremely old, irrelevant news. I don’t know that anybody is even stumbling across them unless they’re specifically looking at them. And they put so little care into them.”

“Now, we’re looking at a third iteration in the form of AI-generated sites, cranking out crap for the sole purpose of the tiny little bit of advertising revenue that they can get [from programmatic advertising],” Kennedy continued. “But I will tell you that for the government to attempt to define journalism is pretty worrying.”

Bob Miller has spent more than 25 years in local newsrooms, including 12 years as an executive editor with Rust Communications. Bob also produces an independent true crime investigative podcast called The Lawless Files.


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