That's the premise behind "Disinformation" - with award-winning Evergreen host Paul Brandus. Get ready for amazing stories - war, espionage, corruption, elections, and assorted trickery showing how false information is turning our world inside out - and what we can do about it. A co-production of Evergreen and Emergent Risk International.
News Deserts - How The Loss of Local Reporting Fuels Disinformation
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The disappearance of local newspapers around the United States over the past 20 years has created so-called “news deserts” - information vacuums that are being filled by peddlers of demagoguery and disinformation. Featuring the journalist who coined the phrase “pink slime” journalism Ryan Zickgraf , former Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Penny Muse Abernathy, and Meredith Wilson, Chief Executive Officer of Emergent Risk International.
A sound heard less and less in America, a newspaper press revving up to print the day's news. Not to wallow in nostalgia, but newspapers have always been the lifeblood of our cities, our towns, our communities, a common thread, if you will, linking everyone and providing information on everything local — high school football scores, potholes, and what the mayor, Town Council, and school board are up to.
But newspapers are vanishing at a rapid pace, some 2,500 gone over the last two decades, meaning that coverage of those local issues is gone as well. And when a paper goes under, it creates what is called a news desert. It can also create a fertile ground for disinformation.
I'm Paul Brandus, and that's the name of this series, it's called simply, Disinformation.
And I'm Meredith Wilson, founder and CEO of Emergent Risk International, and I'll be providing analysis throughout each episode.
One person who has been tracking the demise of local newspapers and the rise of news deserts is Penny Abernathy, a visiting professor at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Her CV also includes time as an executive with the New York Times and Wall Street Journal.
She was also the Knight Chair in journalism and digital media economics at the University of North Carolina.
We have lost a tremendous amount of local news over the last two decades. We've lost it in the number of newspapers closed, we've lost a fourth of all newspapers and are on track to lose a third over the next three years. And we've also lost almost 60% of journalists that worked in 2006 on newspapers.
That has a tremendous impact on the type of local news we get. There's no one in many markets showing up to cover the school board, especially in small and mid-size markets. And in the larger markets where we have the daily papers that would cover important regional issues, we are now missing those important investigative pieces, analytical pieces, and trend pieces that told us how we were related to people we might not know we were related to.
In other words, we shared their same issues, and we shared the same opportunities that they also did.
She explains the connection between the disappearance of newspapers and the rise of disinformation.
If there is no local, credible news being done about issues that concern us, we look for other sources. And unfortunately, because of what is left when you lose a newspaper, there's really, in most cases, no alternative other than maybe television or social media.
So, if you think about television, we've had the rise of cable television and a ton of opinion journalism versus fact-based journalism. And if you look at social media, we have algorithms who basically determine what we tend to see in our news feed.
So, we now have a situation where you can have something inflammatory or provocative said on a cable news show or in some other format, and it then makes it into the social media environment. And so, as a result, we end up, I would say, by most estimates, 90% of what traffics on the internet today is about national politics.
So, it contributes to polarization, it contributes to the notion that we’re dividing to camps about what we want to hear, and that leads to a fertile ground of people who want to use the vacuum to basically put out misinformation and disinformation.
This dynamic has real world consequences, a current one, the recent derailment in East Palestine, Ohio of a Norfolk Southern train loaded with deadly chemicals.
Went outside on the porch and looked, and you see flames shooting about 20 feet in the air.
That's East Palestine resident Keith Everson. The disaster immediately sparking all sorts of information on social media, some of it from credible sources and people in positions of authority, some of it, not.
Penny Abernathy mentioned news deserts. East Palestine where the derailment occurred is in Columbiana County; population 102,000. There happened to be three newspapers, but they're all small, owned by one company with very small staffs, and no one focusing on environmental issues.
That's according to the University of North Carolina's Journalism School, which tracks newspapers around the country. There are two bigger papers in the broader region in Akron and over the state line in Pittsburgh, but like newspapers across the country, they too, have had major layoffs in recent years.
There are simply not enough local reporters with local knowledge, with local contacts. The sum of all of this is a news desert, a vacuum, and notes Meredith Wilson of Emergent Risk International. A basic law of physics dictates that vacuums get filled.
What has essentially happened is several media companies have sort of taken over this space with very politically slanted journalism that is neither local nor neutral. And so, where we've previously had our sort of trusted local news sources — well, it's local news, it's boring, it can't be disinformation.
What we have instead is several media companies that have taken this space and put in its place, this very slanted journalism and frankly, just space filling journalism.
Space filling and slanted — not to paint with a broad brush here, but that's a pretty reasonable description of what Americans are getting these days. In many communities, the local newspaper is gone, or at best, hollowed out a shell of what it once was.
So, where do people go for information? Typically, the destination is online. And here, the algorithms take over, delivering the kind of information and slant (to use Wilson's term) that tells people what they want to hear, that reinforces their pre-existing beliefs. Some of those beliefs are rooted in conspiracy theories. Here's one.
Minutes ago, we confirmed the five people killed when a plane bound for Columbus crashed in Arkansas, where all employees of CTEH, that's a group composed of expert consultants in toxicology focus on the environment …
A plane crash in late February, taking the lives of five environmental experts. It wasn't long before breathless headlines on a few conspiracy-minded websites claimed that the plane was sabotaged as part of an effort to somehow, cover up the East Palestine investigation.
But the Arkansas company, CTEH says it already had employees on site in East Palestine, and the five people on board the plane were going to an unrelated incident at a metal factory, some 70 miles away.
Conspiracy theories, false narratives, baseless accusations, these sorts of things find fertile ground in the desert, the news desert, where again, a dearth of local reporters creates a vacuum for others to fill.
And much of it is filled by a handful of clever entrepreneurs who have built networks of websites around the country in an attempt to fill the gap created by the newspaper industry's collapse. You'll note that I said “clever.” I did not say they were journalists or that they were ethical or above board, just clever.
This is where something called pink slime journalism comes in. I'll explain that after this short break.
This series on disinformation is a co-production of Evergreen Podcasts and Emergent Risk International, a global risk advisory firm. Emergent Risk International, we build intelligent solutions that find opportunities in a world of risk.
Welcome back. I mentioned at the top of this episode that America has lost about 2,500 newspapers over the last two decades. Many more will likely be lost in the next few years. That means citizens in thousands of communities have no real journalists to keep an eye on things, hold public officials accountable, and all the rest.
In many cases, these information vacuums, news deserts, if you will, are being filled not by journalists, not even by people who live and work in that particular community. Listen to this story by a young journalist named Ryan Zickgraf.
Way back in 2012, I was working for a journalism outlet called Journatic. I was an editor for that organization, and it was very strange because it was all remote. And we were doing a lot of local news stories, a lot of real estate transactions at first, where it turns out I was getting the stories written by writers in the Philippines and other countries.
And it was my job just to edit it and kind of make them look good. And then I would give those writers sort of fake American sounding bylines, and then we'd publish them. And as my tenure there went on, I started working for newspapers — I was living in Chicago at the time, and all of a sudden, I was writing for Newsday in New York State, the Houston Chronicle in Texas. Meanwhile, I'd never been to Texas in my life.
“Journalists” thousands of miles away, phony names, Ryan became a whistleblower, and websites that sprung up and the content they generated, he invented a phrase for all this, “pink slime journalism.”
Back then, there was a sort of a food scandal. CBS News had done a report on this like pink filler that you find inside of meat of like ground beef. And it was this sort of byproduct and a lot of people didn't understand what was in the meat.
And so, my idea calling it that was that it was a kind of journalism that looked like the real thing. Because often, these news sites imitate the names, the sort of tropes you would see in a local newspaper, but instead, it would be this quickly assembled thing, often with bad or plagiarized information, written by somebody that doesn't even live in the local community.
And so, it was just a way I came up with the time to describe this kind of journalism that was sort of new.
Zickgraf calls it slime because that's exactly what it is.
There are now thousands and thousands, and at one point, in the last couple years, one of the CEOs of one of these companies said that they're now the number one producer of local news in the United States.
One thing they do is they, again, they try to resemble things that people trust. People trust inherently local newspapers, local news sites, more than they do a lot of the national media, a lot of broadcast media.
And so, they disguise their information to look like most newspapers that you would pick up off the street in your hometown isn't necessarily have a partisan slant. They might have like an opinion column, but otherwise, they try to cover both sides of the story.
But the thing that pink slime sites do is that they take one side and don't disclose it. And so, you get a lot of bad information produced by these sites, a lot of partisan information, and people just don't know where it's from. Because the barrier of entry to web publishing is so low these days.
One person who has taken advantage of the collapsing newspaper industry is a 50-year-old man in Illinois by the name of Brian Timpone. He was, in fact, Ryan Zickgraf's employer. Zickgraf tells what happened after he went public with what he said Timpone was doing.
There was a man, Brian Timpone, who led the organization. And back then, he testified that he still wanted sort of nonpartisan news. Well, that changed. After my story came out on this American life back in the summer of 2012, Journatic kind of disappeared. They rebranded and they sort of changed their operations, and they became more openly partisan and started taking dark money.
Because here's the thing; as you probably know, there's not much money in journalism these days, but there is a lot of money in politics.
Now, Brian Timpone knows the news business, he's a former TV reporter, turned entrepreneur. He's now an internet kingpin of sorts, overseeing twice as many websites as Gannett, America's biggest newspaper chain.
In fairness, I tried several times to reach him, but no luck. But I did find an interview from 2015 where he says, yes, newspapers are going out of business because media is evolutionary.
We've had transformations like this one already. Every time there's a new medium that becomes predominant, you see this change.
So, like if you went back to 1910, newspapers were the only medium that existed. And then all of a sudden, radio emerges in the twenties, and radio becomes a predominant medium. Then broadcast television in the fifties and sixties, and then cable television in the nineties. Every time there was a transformation, there was a lot of disruption, and it was transformed in the same way it's been transformed today.
Okay, that's a fair point. So, where does the disinformation come in? Well, a minute ago, you heard the phrase “dark money.” Dark money refers to money that comes from organizations or individuals that do not have to identify themselves publicly.
In other words, they remain in the dark. It's this anonymity, this lack of transparency that makes it easier for false information to be put into play.
Penny Abernathy, the longtime news executive, and chronicler of the newspaper industry's demise, ties it all together.
We've had large politically affiliated groups decide to come in and set up these fake news sites. They've been very skillful in choosing names that appear to be legitimate.
So, for instance, instead of going by the Buffalo News in New York, you might set up something that says Buffalo Tribune.
Now, the goal of these websites, which proliferate in many of the areas that are economically struggling, many of the areas that have lost a newspaper or have ghost newspapers, the goal of these sites is basically to put something so provocative that if someone picks it up off the website and it then circulates on social media at an appropriate time (they're called pink slime sites) — they tend to be active right around elections.
And that, of course, feeds into the disinformation and misinformation that is out there on the internet.
News sites that sound legitimate, backed by dark money, feeding slanted information to consumers in town after town, that is baron of local journalism, local reporters, and local accountability. This is what is happening across America … as newspapers fade away.
If you like this show and this series, I hope you'll go to the Apple or Spotify page or wherever you're listening to this, and give us a review.
Thanks to Penny Abernathy and Ryan Zickgraf, our sound designer and editor, Noah Foutz, audio engineer Nathan Corson, executive producers, Michael DeAloia, and Gerardo Orlando.
And on behalf of Meredith Wilson of Emergent Risk International, I'm Paul Brandus. Thanks so much for listening.