Election 2020 and the further degradation of local journalism

As has been well-documented, local journalism in the U.S. is suffering greatly. Recent research found that the U.S. has lost over 2,000 local newspapers from 2004 through 2020 – a 25 percent decline. The coronavirus pandemic exacerbated the problem. And, importantly, online-only local news outlets do not appear to have effectively filled the gap.

On top of this, a troubling new trend emerged in the run-up to the 2020 election – the rise of partisan networks of local news sites, many of which are operating under a fundamentally corrupted model of local journalism.

Partisanship in local journalism is certainly nothing new; however, as the number of newspapers serving individual communities contracted over the past four decades, the typical U.S. community was served by a single local newspaper. As a result, this newspaper would often try to appeal to the broadest possible readership by maintaining a degree of objectivity and political neutrality. This new generation of partisan local news sites operates very differently.

First, these sites are typically run as part of far-reaching networks of sites by organizations or individuals with close ties to political parties or political action committees. However, these sites often go to great lengths to conceal their ownership and funding sources from readers. In some instances, these sites have even adopted the names of defunct local newspapers, in an effort to deceive readers.

Second, as a recent New York Times investigation into Metric Media, the largest of these networks of local news sites, illustrated, during the 2020 election season Metric Media sites often accepted payment from political operatives, think tanks, and corporate executives to provide positive or negative coverage of specific candidates or issues, depending upon the wishes of the client. At this point, any pretense of being a news organization is out the window, and yet these sites continue to present themselves as such.

Finally, as our own ongoing research has shown, there is very little that is local about these sites. As much as the names of these sites might indicate that they are focused on individual communities, each site within one of these networks frequently carries much of the same content as the other sites in the network, and much of this content is algorithmically generated or repurposed from other sources.

In sum, many of these networks of sites represent not the next generation of local news outlets, but coordinated networks of semi-covert political influence that have taken advantage of the vacuum left by the decline of legitimate local journalism.

The number of these sites tripled from just over 400 in late 2019 to over 1,300 in the months leading up to the election. As these sites spread across the country, they appeared to be particularly concentrated in the swing states of the election, a pattern that suggests that national political strategy has played a role in the distribution of these “local” news sources.

Many of these sites have added an additional layer of degraded political news and information to a political news ecosystem that was already straining under the weight of algorithmically amplified disinformation, hyper-partisan cable news networks, persistent foreign influence operations, and blatant disinformation originating from our own elected leaders.

What, if any, impact these sites may have had on the election outcome is difficult to determine at this point. However, they obviously grew quite rapidly during election season. In addition, Metric Media has announced plans to launch 15,000 additional sites, and has recently begun purchasing local newspapers, as part of what the company’s CEO Brian Timpone has described as an effort to “democratize community news.”

Rather than democratizing community news, these developments suggest that a new template for disguising strategic political influence efforts as local journalism has been established during the 2020 election and could become the norm in future elections. The 2020 election may have provided just a small preview of what’s yet to come.