A pink slime has been spreading across America. At last count, it has infested more than 1,200 sites.
Pink-slime news sites, that is. The name comes from being the journalistic equivalent of the beef industry’s byproduct called pink slime, a.k.a., Lean, Finely Textured Beef, used as filler in frozen and fast foods.
Don’t be fooled by their down-home mastheads, like the Tuscaloosa Leader, Hoosier State Today, or St. Cloud Sun. Those sound like local news outlets. They’re not. They’re not even wholly human. Their articles are mostly harvested by bots, then cloned to hundreds of websites — the opposite of local reporting.
Pink slime sightings
In March 2019, The Hinsdalean, a small-town Illinois paper, found a fake school newspaper campaigning against increasing the school district’s budget. Their headline read “‘Hinsdale School News’ is no such thing.”
We’re hearing people who are very upset because they recognize someone is trying to deceive the community and put our marks on a paper and trying to make it look like it comes from us.Bruce Law, Hinsdale School Superintendent
In October 2019, the Lansing State Journal spotted nearly forty websites masquerading as local news. Soon after, Priyanjana Bengani, of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, via ace tech-detective work, unearthed five cross-country, interconnected, centrally controlled publishing networks (Metric Media LLC, Locality Labs, Franklin Archer, Record Inc., and Local Government Information Services — the accompanying diagram charts their overlapping organizational structure).
Pink Slime USA
Here’s a map updating the work of Philip Napoli and Jessica Mahone, from Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy. It plots the locations of 1,234 pretend-local news sites. (See the spreadsheet data and the Slime By State tables below). The colors indicate coverage area:
red for localities (e.g., city)
purple for regions (e.g. county)
grey for statewide
What’s the purpose of pink slime?
How partisan is pink slime? Where does it come from? Does it come in peace, bringing “coverage to underreported areas of American life” and “data-driven news about your community”? Does it have evil intent — hijacking ad dollars from legit local news, maybe a paid propaganda propagator or sleeper cells for an October surprise? Dunno. Not yet.
I’m investigating those mysteries right now and hope to have answers for an upcoming post. Until then, I’ll recommend Aleszu Bajak’s Storybench examination of slime site content and offer this table, showing the pink slime that covers your state.
State slime tables
A pink-slime timeline
Updated 2020-12-01. The following articles track the spread of pink-slime. Listed first are reports from the last two years about not-local local news sites. Below are stories from 2012 documenting an early incarnation of a pink-slime machine.
- ‘Hinsdale School News’ is no such thing, The Hinsdalean 2019-03
- Dozens of new websites appear to be Michigan local news outlets, but with political bent, Lansing State Journal 2019-10
- Pseudo local news sites in Michigan reveal nationally expanding network, Michigan Daily 2019-11
- These Hugely Popular Local News Sites In The US And Canada Are Fake, BuzzFeed 2019-11
- How local ‘fake news’ websites spread ‘conservative propaganda’ in the US, The Guardian 2019-11
- Hundreds of ‘pink slime’ local news outlets are distributing algorithmic stories and conservative talking points, Columbia Journalism Review (Tow Center) 2019-12
- These Fake Local News Sites Have Confused People For Years. We Found Out Who Created Them, BuzzFeed 2020-04
- Hundreds of hyperpartisan sites are masquerading as local news. This map shows if there’s one near you., Nieman Lab 2020-07
- As election looms, a network of mysterious ‘pink slime’ local news outlets nearly triples in size, Columbia Journalism Review 2020-08
- Reopen schools narrative spreads across shadowy local news sites, Storybench (Northeastern University) 2020-08
- As Local News Dies, a Pay-for-Play Network Rises in Its Place, New York Times 2020-10
- California News Trust Report: Dozens of partisan websites posing as local newspapers, exploiting and undermining readers’ trust in local journalism, NewsGuard 2021-07
- Switcheroo, Act Two: Forgive us our Press Passes, This American Life 2012-06
- Journatic worker takes ‘This American Life’ inside outsourced journalism, Poynter 2012-06
- Exposing the “‘pink slime’ journalism” of Journatic, Media Nation 2012-07